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Thursday, August 3, 2017


Automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) technology is used to capture millions of motorists’ licence plates in the UK and store them in a huge database. In the United States the technology is more commonly known as Automated License Plate Readers/Recognition (ALPR), which according to a report published by the U.S. Department of Justice, captures up to “1,800 license plates per minute at speeds up to 120-160 miles per hour.”
What’s so bad about ANPR or ALPR technology you ask. Well, if police and other law enforcement agencies in the UK and overseas use automatic number plate recognition to fight crime such as to locate stolen cars – surely that’s a good thing? Essentially it is. Criminals are, according to British police, using the UK’s roads for illegal activities such as kidnapping, drug-related crimes and murder. While these measures to fight crime are to be commended, where can the line be drawn between bringing criminals to justice to an increasing surveillance state – without encroaching on people’s right to privacy?
Big Brother is watching!
How far can you walk down the street before spotting a CCTV camera? In the UK, it’s not long before you notice one – perhaps in a store, mounted on a traffic light or in your bank. There are between 4 million and 5.9 million CCTV cameras in the UK, according to a report by the British Security Industry Association (BSIA). However, not all CCTV cameras are equipped with ANPR technology. Currently, 9,000 automatic number plate recognition cameras are in use across the UK, according to Sky NewsKent police have plans to increase the number of ANPR cameras by a third. 34 automatic number plate recognition cameras are planned to be installed over the next few years, bringing the total number of spy cameras in Kent to 137.
Our online activity is monitored, there are apps which help employers to track the movements of their employees, facial recognition creeps into our everyday lives, even our TV sets are listening into our conversations – and of course automatic number plate recognition technology can be added to this list. It would appear that there are very few places left where people can escape state surveillance and enjoy privacy.
What is ANPR technology?
Automatic number plate recognition was invented in 1976 at the Police Scientific Development Branch in the UK. The first official report of ANPR technology being used was to help solve a murder case in the UK, in November 2005 by locating the killers of Sharon Beshenivsky, according to a number of news reports.
ANPR technology is used by police and other law enforcement agencies throughout England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The technology has received a fair amount of traction in the British media recently, due to the number of them currently being used on the UK’s roads.
British broadcaster Sky News, recently reported that 34 million images of commuters’ car number plates were taken using automatic number plate recognition cameras each day during one week in October 2015, and these were added to a database containing 22 billion – yes 22 billion- records. All images captured by ANPR cameras are kept for two years.
CCTV cameras are fitted with automatic number plate recognition software – or ANPR technology. As a vehicle passes by the cameras, an image of the vehicle’s licence plate is captured – and sent to a database. In the UK, this data is sent to the Police National Computer. The issue here is that the information from ALL vehicles is recorded and stored – regardless of whether you are innocent.
Police.UK state on their website that:
Using Automatic Number Plate Recognition, “Police officers can intercept and stop a vehicle, check it for evidence and, where necessary, make arrests. A record for all vehicles passing by a camera is stored, including those for vehicles that are not known to be of interest at the time of the read that may in appropriate circumstances be accessed for investigative purposes. The use of ANPR in this way has proved to be important in the detection of many offences, including locating stolen vehicles, tackling uninsured vehicle use and solving cases of terrorism, major and organised crime. It also allows officers’ attention to be drawn to offending vehicles whilst allowing law abiding drivers to go about their business unhindered.”
But what happens to these records? Who lawfully has access to them? Who actually might have access to them? And what about the risk of hackers compromising the ANPR database?
Jonathan Bamford, the Head of Strategic Liaison at the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), recently told Sky News: “You’ve really got to ask the question about the extent of ANPR and the amount of records that it’s collecting.” Bamford added: “There are a lot of people going around on their ordinary day to day business doing nothing wrong, innocent individuals – those are being acquired at the rate of 30 million or so a day and being retained for a number of years…you end up with a picture where there’s not a lot of our lives taking place which the state can’t gain access to in some ways. So it’s very, very important that there’s a proper public policy debate about the extent of surveillance in the United Kingdom.”
The use and storage of ANPR technology concerns many, including privacy advocates and human rights groups, such as the Big Brother Watch in that monitoring all citizens (including innocents) movements, the software not only invades people’s privacy, it allows for misidentification and errors, and can be regarded as yet another form of mass surveillance.
Renate Samson, Chief Executive at Big Brother Watch, said: “A proper debate about how this technology is used and to what extent it invades the privacy of ordinary motorists is long over. There needs to be a massive education programme about ANPR: what they are, what do they do, how long is our data kept, and what is the data used for? If not, it will fuel concerns about a surveillance state.”
Even if you are comfortable theoretically with your own government having access to these records and using them under the right controls – what about hacking groups? What about foreign governments? As the recent news of the compromise of the Equation Group (an elite hacking group strongly associated with the United States NSA) shows, even elite, possibly government-sponsored actors can have their databases compromised.  What’s to stop the information from ending up in the wrong hands?
Do you think that automatic number plate recognition technology is about keeping UK citizens safe by bringing criminals to justice? Or do you think the technology is used to generate more revenue for the government and also gives them too much power to be able to pry into the lives of innocent people?

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