Britain plans total electronic surveillance of roads
In trial runs, the high-tech system increased arrests per officer tenfold.
First there was closed-circuit TV. Then speed cameras. Then DNA profiling, plans for ID cards, and cellphone data storage.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
In March, Britain will enhance its reputation as the surveillance capital of the West with a global first: recording the movements of all cars on the road and storing the data for at least two years.
It's a network of thousands of cameras harnessed to software that can read car license plates, check them against a central database, and alert police to suspected criminals or terrorists.Police chiefs are thrilled at the technology, arguing it will provide an unrivaled crime-fighting tool that will also aid antiterror efforts.
In regional trial runs, the number of arrests per officer shot up from around 10 per year to 100 per year. Convictions also increased.
But civil liberty activists are aghast at yet another move by the authorities to spy on citizens in the name of security and law and order, warning of a growing bank of Orwellian technology.
"The freedom and anonymity of the open road is something that is culturally important here," says Simon Davies, director of Privacy International. "Now like some scene in '1984,' the fact that we will travel and be detected and analyzed changes the whole psyche of the nation."
In their defense, police say they need the best technology available to reduce perennially rising crime rates and face an acute terror threat.
"Criminals use cars, it's as simple as that," says John Dean, a retired officer who is coordinating the rollout of the automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) program.
"It's taken a while to get the police service to realize that this can make a significant difference to crime detection and terrorism."
Britain's 30 million motorists have long been used to assiduous roadside camera surveillance, be it to deter speeding or monitor London's congestion charge - an £8 ($14) fee charged for driving into central London during business hours.
But the ANPR nationwide system will use the extensive camera network already in place as well as new cameras to capturelicenseplates from as many as 50 million cars a day and store them in a vast databank with date, time, and location stamps.
Within a matter of seconds, the database will signal whether the car may be of interest to police, cross-checking the plate against a list of stolen and suspect vehicles and also verifying for proper insurance, taxation, and roadworthiness. Dedicated ANPR operators will then alert roadside units to the rogue vehicle.
"People who drive stolen cars often steal them as a result of burglary," says Mr. Dean, so you might find property in the back or other material. It's very efficient."
Police say life is about to get tougher for criminals, whether they are involved with drugs, firearms, identity fraud, or property theft.