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The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has sent a warning to police forces that use automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras excessively, labelling one town in particular as a ‘ring of steel'.
Royston, in Hertfordshire, has received an enforcement notice from the ICO after its use of seven ANPR cameras branded as ‘disproportionate'. The notice said that they had "effectively made it impossible for anyone to drive their car in and out of Royston without a record being kept of the journey".
The investigation carried out by the ICO stemmed from a joint complaint from privacy activist groups Big Brother Watch, Privacy International and No CCTV. The ICO found that Hertfordshire Constabulary failed to carry out "any effective impact assessments" before the system went live.
The ICO ruled that this use was "unlawful" as it breached the Data Protection Act, and that it was not justifiable for Hertfordshire Constabulary to log every vehicle passing through the town on its system.
The ICO's head of enforcement Stephen Eckersley said: "It is difficult to see why a small rural town such as Royston, requires cameras monitoring all traffic in and out of the town, 24 hours a day. The use of ANPR cameras and other forms of surveillance must be proportionate to the problem it is trying to address."
He said that other UK police forces should be taking note of Royston's plight. "We hope that this enforcement notice sends a clear message to all police forces, that the use of ANPR cameras needs to be fully justified before they are installed. This includes carrying out a comprehensive assessment of the impact on the privacy of the road-using public."
Privacy group No CCTV hailed the enforcement notice as a "landmark decision" but said the crackdown should go further. "This can only be the beginning – our concerns go beyond regulatory frameworks, highlighting the detrimental consequences on our society of sacrificing freedoms without question and turning everyday life into a scene of crime," it said.
A Hertfordshire Constabulary statement said that it would not appeal the notice: "An enforcement notice was not necessary in this instance - not because we reject the Commissioner's concerns, but because we are already working towards remedying them.
The statement continued: "We have already undertaken considerable analysis of the justification for the use of these cameras in Royston and we have welcomed the Commissioner's offer of further advice on strengthening our privacy impact assessments. "