A "24x7 national vehicle movement database" that logs everything on the UK's roads and retains the data for at least two years is now being built, according to an Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) strategy document leaked to the Sunday Times. The system, which will use Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR), and will be overseen from a control centre in Hendon, London, is a sort of 'Gatso 2' network, extending. enhancing and linking existing CCTV, ANPR and speedcam systems and databases.
Which possibly explains why the sorcerer's apprentices in ACPO's tech section don't seem to have needed any kind of Parliamentary approval to begin the deployment of what promises to be one the most pervasive surveillance systems on earth.
The control centre is intended to go live in April of next year, and is intended to be processing 50 million number plates a day by year end. ACPO national ANPR co-ordinator John Dean told the Sunday Times that fixed ANPR cameras already exist "at strategic points" on every motorway in the UK, and that the intention was to have "good nationwide coverage within the next 12 months." According to ACPO roads policing head Meredydd Hughes, ANPR systems are planned every 400 yards along motorways, and a trial on the M42 near Birmingham will first be used to enforce variable speed limits, then to 'tackle more serious crime.'
Hughes intends ANPR to go in whenever CCTV systems are installed, and cites the "complete system" around Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield, where every vehicle is checked on the ANPR database, as the model.
The primary aims claimed for the system are tackling untaxed and uninsured vehicles, stolen cars and the considerably broader one of 'denying criminals the use of the roads.' But unless the Times has got the spacing wrong, having one every quarter of a mile on motorways quite clearly means they'll be used to enforce speed limits as well, which would effectively make the current generation of Gatsos obsolete. Otherwise, checking a vehicle's tax and insurance status every 15 seconds or thereabouts would seem overkill.
The major immediate payoffs from the point of view of the police will come via links with other databases. A DVLA project to computerise MoT test centres, thus facilitating the creation of a comprehensive tax database, was originally intended to go into operation early in 2005, but has been subject to repeated delays. And while the Home Office flagged the success of mobile ANPR unit trials earlier this year, claiming increases in arrest rates of up to 1,000 per cent, it failed to mention that the same trial exposed major flaws in the DVLA's existing databases. The police ANPR system is however also being linked to a database of uninsured vehicles, and new offences, and police powers, were announced last week by Transport Secretary Alistair Darling.
Civil liberties trainspotters will share The Register's pleasure at discovering (as revealed here, in the notes to editors) that the Disclosure of Vehicle Insurance Regulations 2005 "were made under powers provided for in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005." The seriousness of untaxed and uninsured vehicles is at the very least a matter of opinion, but 'organised'?
The new offence of keeping a vehicle without insurance criminalises the previously harmless pastime of keeping an uninsured vehicle in a garage and not driving it, and comes on top of the previous breakthrough of criminalising keeping an untaxed vehicle in a garage and not driving it. The latter was dealt with by requiring owners to register the vehicle as off the road via a Statutory Off-Road Notification. The administrative convenience of turning not doing anything wrong into a crime will allow the Government to issue fixed penalty notices for failing to renew insurance on time, while there's also now a fixed penalty for late renewal of tax discs (previously, you could pay in arrears). In both cases the penalties are clearly only going to hit people who've previously been registered with the system. Dealing with the large numbers of entirely unregistered and uninsured vehicles will require real-time alerts and pursuit, and these vehicles will have to be differentiated from the many foreign registered cars on the UK's roads. As it will be a lot easier and cheaper to fine the law-abiding but forgetful than it will be to deal with the hardline serial offenders, we think we can guess which way this one will go.
In addition to the tax and insurance 'benefits', the proposed two year retention period for the "national vehicle movement database" provides police with a potentially powerful resource for surveillance and for future investigations. Vehicles can be 'tailed' remotely, and particular drivers' past movements can be put together far more easily than in the case of CCTV footage (faces, frustratingly, not yet having number plates). One can also see potential in the ability to link ANPR data with CCTV footage of the vehicle, which to some extent would number plate your face (best avoid baseball caps).
And shall we highlight the usefulness of the system in the war on terror before they do? As the recent Metropolitan police document lobbying for detention periods of up to 90 days without charge made clear, the security services' current approach is to move in quickly in response to terror tips, then to sift computers, search homes, and investigate individuals' circumstances and friends in search of actual evidence. Being able to see where they'd been for the last two years as well would be really helpful. Don't worry though - if you haven't done anything wrong you've nothing to fear.
Unless your name comes up in an Algerian security service interrogation... ®