A system of police cameras that slurped the comings and goings of Brits living and working in the small Hertfordshire town of Royston has been found to be "unlawful" for collecting "excessive" information, the UK's data watchdog ruled today.
The local cops' Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) scheme had been dubbed "the ring of steel", after the cameras "made it impossible for anyone to drive their car in and out of Royston without a record being kept of the journey," the Information Commissioner's Office said.
It has issued an enforcement notice to the Hertfordshire Constabulary, whose press officer told The Register that, at time of writing, they were working on a statement about the data breach.
The ICO took action following a joint complaint from No CCTV, Big Brother Watch and Privacy International. Its investigators examined whether use of the cameras was justified and compliant with the Data Protection Act.
The regulator concluded that the scheme was "disproportionate" and added that the constabulary had failed to carry out a proper impact assessment before implementing the ANPR system.
The ICO said that the force had breached two of the data protection principles, with its surveillance being "unlawful" and "excessive". It slapped an enforcement notice on Hertfordshire Constabulary and ordered them to stop slurping the data, unless they can justify use of the CCTV-tracking scheme.
ICO head of enforcement Stephen Exkersley said:
It is difficult to see why a small rural town such as Royston requires cameras monitoring all traffic in and out of the town 24 hours a day. The use of ANPR cameras and other forms of surveillance must be proportionate to the problem it is trying to address. After detailed enquiries, including consideration of the information Hertfordshire Constabulary provided, we found that this simply wasn’t the case in Royston.
We hope that this enforcement notice sends a clear message to all police forces: that the use of ANPR cameras needs to be fully justified before they are installed. This includes carrying out a comprehensive assessment of the impact on the privacy of the road-using public.
Campaign group No CCTV spokesman Charles Farrier described the watchdog's action as a "landmark decision."
He added: "The ICO has validated our view that blanket vehicle tracking should have no place in a democratic society. The ANPR camera network amounts to an automated checkpoint system that is the stuff of totalitarianism." ®