Do you ever have the feeling that you are being watched? You look around and no one seems to be watching you at all. This can happen when you are wandering through a crowded shopping centre or train station. You feel it when you walk down the high street. Even when you are driving, you can have the feeling of being watched and have no idea where from. It is all based on neuroscience as to why you may feel like you are being watched when you are not.
However, the strange truth is that whilst a physical human may not be standing close to you, staring at you, that doesn’t mean you aren’t being watched. In fact, it is more likely that you are being watched.
The average Briton is caught on CCTV camera 70 times a day. There are 5.9 million cameras across the UK. To put that in perspective, China has less camera surveillance than the UK. In fact, the UK uses 4.2% of all CCTV cameras globally. Cameras are very important when it comes to displacing crime and monitoring traffic and these include ANPR cameras.
Automatic Number Plate Recognition cameras are an increasingly useful tool for the police, authorities and private companies to track individual cars. The cameras are often used in the name of security and solving crimes such as speeding or neglection to pay for the fuel at petrol stations for example.
What are ANPR Cameras?
Automatic Number Plate Recognition technology reads and retains registration plates on vehicles. It is used by both the police and by private companies in a fixed and mobile capacity. If you ever see a police car with a small camera attached to the roof of the car, it is most likely an ANPR camera. If an ANPR camera is attached to a police vehicle, it must be stated on the side of the vehicle.
How these cameras work
When a vehicle passes in front of an ANPR camera, it reads the registration plate. The number is instantly checked against database records, collected by the police or by a private company (police never share their database),to check for vehicles of interest.
ANPR technology is the technical method of artificial vision. These cameras recognise number plates directly from the images of vehicles stored on their hard drives. The recognition rate these days for the cameras is between 95-98% accurate and can recognise number plates from a car driving up to 125 mph.
Why are they used?
Crime is about the opportunity. In fact, the majority of crimes committed are by opportunists hoping to make life a little easier for themselves by breaking the law. It is rarely a complicated conspiracy as film and television often show. No, it is simply a person taking advantage of a situation and making the incorrect choice.
ANPR cameras are there to catch out those who commit crimes with their cars. This includes detecting cars that are uninsured or are not legally allowed on the road due to unpaid vehicle tax. The camera snaps their number plate and the officers in the police car know within seconds which cars are illegally on the road. The same goes for those cars which have been reported stolen. The officers sit waiting in their car and if their system is pinged by a stolen car passing in front of the camera, they can pursue.
At times when serious crime does occur such as murder or terrorism, ANPR cameras have been instrumental in catching the perpetrator quickly and efficiently. These cameras are a silver bullet for the police because it helps them to identify vehicles that they are searching for or shouldn’t be on the road at all. It has been proven to dramatically speed up investigations, which is always a positive.
The use of stored data
People’s privacy is an important principle to be protected. Under the law, all data collected by those cameras must be data protected under the Data Protection Act (1998). This means that the police are not allowed to share any of the data collected by the camera with external organisations. The external organisations such as multi-storey car parks are legally obliged not to share the details.
With regards to the police, any ANPR data collected is submitted to the National ANPR Data Centre where it is stored. Every police force using these cameras must submit their data there. It is kept there for a period of two years.
Now, two years doesn’t sound like a long time, however, if you are constantly passing these cameras, you are a constantly new data entry with a fresh two years ahead of you. This means that you could never leave the Data Centre unless you sold your car and never drove again (we are not advocating that!).
Whilst these cameras are excellent tools or law enforcement, there are concerns over them. As is mentioned at the top, the average Briton is surveilled by cameras 70 times a day including ANPR cameras. This is mass surveillance and some do object to that.
The dystopian theory behind the use of these technologies is that those using them can track your car. The authorities do not disclose the locations of the fixed ANPR cameras meaning you could pass several on a commute to work without knowing it. You could, in theory, be tracked, allowing those in control to work out your pattern and habit.
The government recognised the concerns and the Home Office published guidelines for the law enforcement agencies to follow called The Use of ANPR by Law Enforcement Agencies Lawful Interference with the European Convention on Human Rights - Article 8.
Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights is broken into two clauses. The first states: “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence”. Some may say that the use of ANPR cameras broke this article by interfering with your private life by allowing the police to collect data on you and your vehicle without your specific consent.
However, that is what the second clause of Article 8 is for. It says: “There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” According to the Home Office document, the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 provide the framework to support this clause.
Who controls them?
For any law enforcement agency to use these ANPR cameras, they must be in compliance with both the Data Protection Act and the Surveillance Camera Code issued under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. This means that there should be no misuse of this technology by law enforcement agencies apart from the activities stated above like taking uninsured, untaxed and stolen vehicles off the road.
The SCC regulates the overt surveillance of using ANPR cameras and according to the Home Office, use of ANPR is regarded as surveillance by consent where we, as a population accept that these forms of surveillance are necessary to solve crimes. It is particularly important with regards to fixed cameras either permanently or temporarily.
The truth is that if these cameras were not used, many crimes would likely go unpunished for many people. As long as they remain well regulated and follow the SCC, then there should be no reason to complain against them.