A single case has managed to combine all that is worrying about the way in which local councils carry out traffic enforcement. The story, reported in the Daily Mail, showed that after being caught on CCTV a driver was subsequently tracked down by bailiffs using a combination of mobile Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) and their access to the DVLA database.
The use of CCTV for handing out traffic fines is something that has raised concerns from a number of sources, for example Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who accused councils of “bending the law as a means of filling their coffers with taxpayers’ cash.” The Surveillance Camera Commissioner (SCC) also published guidance on this practice, stating that cameras should only be used “when other means of enforcement are not practical”.
Research by Big Brother Watch (PDF) has highlighted that the use of static CCTV to tackle parking and traffic violations has proved lucrative for local councils, bringing in over £179m in 5 years. This reinforces Eric Pickles’ concerns that CCTV cameras are in fact being used to raise revenues, rather than actually improve traffic conditions.
You may remember the now infamous “ring of steel” system of ANPR cameras that was placed around Royston, which was ruled to be unlawful by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). A year on from that ruling, figures have been published which show that since Hertfordshire Police was forced to dismantle the system there hasn’t been a sudden and uncontrollable outbreak of lawlessness and crime.
Crime statistics, recently released by Hertfordshire Police, show that between April and June 2013, when the ANPR system was still in place,172 crimes were committed. When comparing this to the same period in 2014 it turns out that 171 crimes were recorded, a drop of 1.
The scheme originally involved the position of ANPR cameras in such a way that it was impossible for motorists to drive in or out of the town without being filmed. In July 2013, the ICO ruled that the Police had failed to carry out “any effective impact assessments” whilst commenting that “it is difficult to see why a small rural town … requires cameras monitoring all traffic in and out of the town, 24 hours a day”.
In the past three years, 294 public organisations have faced action over their use of the database containing details of car registrations and driving licenses.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request from Big Brother Watch, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority (DVLA) disclosed that the organisations were overwhelmingly local authorities, but included Sussex Police and Transport for London.
They all had access suspended, while 38 organisations saw their access permanently revoked. Of the issues identified, 156 came about because of audits of the database use by staff.
Guest by Keith Mathieson
A report in the Guardian last week reminds readers of the strong likelihood that local police forces have tracked their movements with the use of automatic numberplate recognition (ANPR). According to the article, around 14.5 million numberplate reads (yes, 14.5 million!) are generated every day in the United Kingdom. They are then stored on servers adjoining the police national computer in Hendon, north London. Each record of a car’s movements will be stored for two years – or five years if connected to a crime. The movements are detected by a combination of 5,000 unmarked roadside cameras (not to be confused with the marked yellow boxes containing speed cameras) and mobile cameras inside patrol vehicles.
ANPR helps police forces to tackle crime by enabling it, among other things, to track down uninsured and disqualified drivers and those whose cars may have been used for crime. But the system has the potential to cause unwarranted infringements of personal privacy where, for example, the movements of innocent car owners are retained for no good reason or, through laxity or error, car owners are wrongly ‘hotlisted’ as deserving police attention.
The Guardian article describes the ANPR system in operation in Royston, Hertfordshire, a relatively crime-free spot where ANPR has nonetheless been installed on every road in and out of the town. The article notes that the Royston scheme has been the subject of complaints to the Information Commissioner’s Office by the campaign groups NoCCTV, Privacy International and Big Brother Watch.
In its 2005-2006 report the Chief Surveillance Commissioner expressed concerns that existing legislation did not adequately cater for ANPR, which, he suggested, might in some cases amount to covert surveillance under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. The Government is intending to regulate CCTV and ANPR as part of the reforms to be introduced by the Protection of Freedoms Bill. A previous post found here described the provisions of that bill.
Keith Mathieson is a partner at Reynolds Porter Chamberlain LLP