told: Draw up code of practice for cops bulk-slurping car plates

CCTV commish welcomes amendment 3 years after first suggested

UK government will be forced to debate a code of practice for cops' use of automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) systems after Labour MPs tabled an amendment to the Data Protection Bill.

Widespread use of ANPR means cameras across the country submit between 25 million and 35 million read records to the national ANPR data centre each day. There are more than 22 billion records in the database.

Despite the gigantic scale of the slurp, the Home Office has repeatedly resisted calls from the surveillance camera commissioner and others to put ANPR on a statutory footing to increase oversight, accountability and transparency.

"It's very clear to me, that as ANPR expanded, and its capacity and capability expanded, that there was very little – if any – democratic oversight of its utility, its capability," surveillance camera commissioner Tony Porter told The Register.

"And then you have to combine that with the lack of transparency because there [are] 43 forces that use it, as well as the back office use."

The government will now be forced to confront such concerns in Parliament as four Labour MPs have proposed inserting a clause requiring the secretary of state to develop an ANPR code of practice into the Data Protection Bill.

"This amendment, whilst about three years after the [initial] call, is well deserved," Porter said.

In order to be effective, he said, the code would have to be "properly formulated" so it has accountability lines back to Parliament, with a requirement to report back on the performance, value and utility of ANPR, and ensure transparency in the tech's use.

But there are also concerns about the tech's increasing presence in the private sector for car parks and traffic monitoring – which wouldn't be brought under a code. These firms access vehicle-keeper records from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) quango in order to issue the owners with fines.

"If the private sector are going to acquire data held by the DVLA – effectively a state database – well surely there should be greater focus on their use of ANPR," Porter said.

He added, though, that there was some recent progress in this regard, as the British Parking Association (BPA) has said they expect private firms to comply with the surveillance camera code of practice. Any that do not can be excluded from the BPA, which would mean no access to DVLA records.

"So we have made some moves forward, which is to be celebrated," Porter said. "However, is it sufficient, and will it be policed? How would I know out of the thousands of operators that 100, 200 are not in fact complying? I wouldn't; I don't have the wherewithal to police that."

There are other concerns about the technology itself: it is reported to operate with a 97 per cent accuracy, which could equate to some 1.25 million misreads a day.

"There's a legitimate public debate to be had about whether the national standard of 97 per cent accuracy is acceptable," Porter said. "That needs to percolate up into the public consciousness."

Labour's ANPR amendment (NC15) has been tabled as the bill makes its way through the committee stage, which – because the legislation is on a very tight schedule – must complete by Tuesday 27 March.

It is likely to be debated towards the end of the hearings, and while the UK's governing Conservative Party might not want to accept an opposition amendment, it will have to weigh this against the chance of losing a vote. Another option would be for the government to agree to put ANPR on a statutory footing to persuade Labour to withdraw the amendment. ®

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