Updated British terror-plods will be given real-time access to the massive camera network operated in London to support the Congestion Charge, it has been reported.
The city transport authority, Transport for London (TfL), uses 1,500 cameras and Automatic Numberplate Recognition technology (ANPR) to record the number and location of most vehicles which move within the Congestion Charging zone, in order to check that drivers have paid their fees. Until now, when police needed to access the database of vehicle times and locations, they had to request information on a case-by-case basis.
The BBC reports that the Metropolitan Police's new Counter Terrorism Command is understood to have used TfL's camera data in tracing the movement of the cars employed by blundering wannabe jihadi dunces last month in a wildly incompetent series of "attacks" which injured nobody except one of their own number.
Tony McNulty, the minister for plods'n'spooks, said:
"The infrastructure will allow the real-time flow of data between TfL and the Met.
"The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police believes that it is necessary due to the enduring, vehicle-borne terrorist threat to London.
"The Met requires bulk ANPR data from TfL's camera network in London specifically for terrorism intelligence purposes and to prevent and investigate such offences."
Mr McNulty said that the home secretary had exempted TfL and the Met terror-plods from certain bits of the 1998 Data Protection Act, which would otherwise have made the scheme illegal.
It was stressed by the Home Office that the TfL data could be used only for national security purposes and not to fight ordinary crime. (Apart, presumably, from the ordinary crime of not paying one's congestion charge.)
Jacqui Smith, home secretary, also said there was an "enduring vehicle-borne terrorist threat to London." It was claimed that this belief did not rest solely on last month's terror-bungle and associated media frenzy.
According to the Beeb, "the Home Office said discussions were underway on giving police greater access to data before the discovery of the two car bombs."
These were not, in fact, car bombs in any real sense, any more than a camper van with a gas stove and a toolbox in it. The Home Office assertions of an enduring car-bomb threat seem reasonable, however. Just six years ago in 2001, for instance, the capital was struck by four genuine, effective car bombs placed by old-school Irish terrorists.
All the same, if that kind of real danger was the reason behind this latest extension of counter-terror powers, the move would surely have taken place as soon as the Congestion Charge stood up in 2003. It seems quite clear that in fact Ms Smith and Mr McNulty have been stampeded into tightening the grip of the surveillance state by an otherwise totally ineffectual "attack" - or have sought to use it as justification.
It seems that even the most crassly stupid terrorists can, in fact, strike effective blows at the foundations of the British state. In this case, at the rule of law.®
It has emerged since last night's briefing that in fact the Home Office wants to give the police real-time access to all ANPR camera data as the technology is rolled out nationwide - and the notional glass wall between terror-plods and ordinary coppers would be removed. Effectively, police and spooks would then be able track any car (or, more accurately, any numberplate) around the country in close to real time.
There was no intention by the government to reveal this desire on the part of the Home Office, but details were inadvertently included in background documents released last night.
Officials and ministers clearly understood how controversial the idea of routine vehicle tracking could be. Even the TfL hookup, ostensibly for terror purposes only, was rated as "highly controversial," and it was understood that a national real-time system employed against everyday minor offenders could draw "Big Brother" allusions. Conversely, it was feared that there might be calls for blood should a successful terror attack occur without any preparations to use ANPR for security having been made.
One thing's sure: the Home Office has shown its hand now. It's safe to say that if ANPR is widely implemented, sooner or later UK officialdom in general will start using it to monitor people. Maybe not right away, but eventually the temptation will prove irresistible. Not just the spooks and terror-plods, but the taxman, Child Support Agency, headteachers at oversubscribed schools, traffic cops, repo men, bailiffs, motor insurers ... they could all prevent crimes, frauds or other naughtiness using ANPR. And do make sure your jealous lover/spouse/stalker doesn't work for one of these organisations, won't you.
Actual criminals and terrorists who know what they're doing will continue to use freshly-stolen, duplicated or otherwise 'clean' plates - maybe yours! But the rest of us may have to get a lot more law-abiding in years to come.
The new revelations are reported in the Guardian and elsewhere.