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Number plate recognition: the privacy concerns for innocent motorists

An Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) system to catch criminals was announced last Thursday by the Home Office, after trials increased arrest rates dramatically. But it will also capture data on the vast majority of the innocent motorists.05 Jun 2003

According to the Home Office, ANPR works by instantly scanning number plates – around 3,000 plates an hour - and matching them against information stored in databases including the Police National Computer, DVLA databases and local intelligence databases.

The scan identifies vehicles of interest to the police such as stolen cars or those involved in crime. It will also target those driving without insurance, an MOT certificate, or even a current tax disc.

When a suspicious vehicle is recognised it becomes the focus of police targeted interceptions and enquiries. If the driver is arrested, a DNA sample could be taken irrespective of whether the driver is later charged or not.

The system has been successful in trials for, according to the Home Office, it has so far helped police seize more than £100,000 in illegal drugs and recover over 300 stolen vehicles (with a value in excess of £2 million) and £715,000 in stolen goods. More than 3,000 people were arrested - ten times more than the national average - with the majority of arrests being for serious crimes.

ANPR was piloted for six months by nine police forces. Following the success of the pilot, it will be rolled out to 23 forces in England and Wales, beginning in the summer of 2004.

However, the scanning rates of the system mean that the details of many vehicles will be logged which are then not stopped by the police or are of no interest to the police at all. This raises some important questions. What happens to that data? Is it thrown away? Who else uses the personal data? How long are personal data retained?

A spokesman for the Home Office yesterday could not answer that question because, he said, this was only a pilot project as yet. "We have not got that sort of information available at this point," he said.

But the Home Office did confirm to OUT-LAW.COM that the use of scanners would be publicised, and the vans they are contained in would not be hidden. They would be "more visible than speed cameras," said the spokesman, adding, "That is the point."

Dr. Chris Pounder of Masons, the firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, and Editor of Data Protection and Privacy Practice, said:

"Normal data practice would require the personal data about the vehicles that are not of interest to the police to be deleted as soon as practicable. If the Home Office is considering the retaining of such personal data, then it raises essentially the same issues which are associated with the retention of communications data under RIPA."

RIPA is the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act of 2000.

Only last month it was revealed by human rights watchdog Privacy International that the UK's law enforcement and investigation agencies are now making around a million requests a year to telecoms companies and ISP's for telephone billing data, e-mail logs, personal details of customers and records showing the location where mobile phone calls were made.

The Interception of Communications Act 1985 has been the basis of authority for such activity, together with a provision of the Data Protection Act that gives exemptions for preventing or detecting crime. Both regulations restrict the number of agencies that have access to the information.

Unfortunately, this is now likely to change to allow access by many more government agencies than simply those involved in law enforcement.

The Interception of Communications Act is due to be replaced by provisions of RIPA. This was due to happen last year, but the Home Office was forced to withdraw the provisions following public outrage at its attempt to give an even more extensive list of public authorities access to this communications data.

The unprecedented access would have been available - as indeed it is currently - without any judicial oversight.

The Home Office is now consulting over these issues before taking further action, but the two consultation documents it has published indicate that the current surveillance regime is likely to become universal.

Footnote: Dr Chris Pounder was a consultant with Pinsent Masons until September 2008. He now runs a new training business, Amberhawk.