The widespread use of automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) systems by UK police forces represents one of the largest surveillance systems in the world, but lacks any legal framework or governance.
This was the warning from Tony Porter, the UK’s surveillance camera commissioner, during a speech at Stirling University.
"ANPR in the UK must surely be one of the largest data gatherers of its citizens in the world," he said.
There are currently 8,300 ANPR cameras in use submitting 25 to 35 million ‘read’ records to the National ANPR Data Centre daily, but the legal framework governing such mass data collection lacks clarity, which Porter considers a major concern.
“I would like to put forward that the use of ANPR cameras has an extremely unsteady legal framework,” he said.
He noted that there is no law to govern the use of ANPR systems, although this does not necessarily make it illegal. However, attempts to clarify this with the government have not resolved the problem.
“I am not 100 percent clear on this and when I’ve spoken to the Home Office they’ve informed me that ANPR is just another tool in the policing toolkit and does not require a statutory authority," said Porter.
“So, as long as National ANPR Standards and Procedures offers sufficient safeguards to protect against the article 8 right against intrusion into privacy any legal challenge is set to fail. Or is it?”
Porter warned that the sheer scope and scale of the ANPR systems make it one of the "world’s largest non-military surveillance systems" and therefore needs far better rules regarding governance and oversight, none of which has ever existed.
"But who gave their consent to this? Where is the legislation, and where was the debate in parliament? So I argue that some forms of surveillance have no legislative framework whatsoever," he added.
Another area of concern raised by Porter is the huge database of face images that police forces gather with custody photos, often of those who are never charged or are found innocent of any crime.
“In the UK our database is touching 18 million images made up of custody photos. They include photos of people never charged, or others cleared of an offence. Why are these innocent people on these databases? This is something that causes me a great deal of concern.”
Daniel Nesbitt, research director of Big Brother Watch, said it was clear a discussion was needed about the ANPR system as part of the wider debate on surveillance.
“Although ANPR was first installed to tackle specific issues with 350 images now being captured every second it is impossible for motorists to travel without having their details captured and stored, regardless of whether or not they are doing anything wrong," he said.
“An open and honest debate about how this technology is being used as well as how far it invades the privacy of ordinary motorists is now long overdue. For starters we need to see regular reports being published on how the system is being run and exactly what safeguards can be put in place to protect the public.”
The concerns come during a period of intense debate and activity around surveillance as the government looks to introduce new legislation under the Investigatory Powers Bill to better monitor digital data.
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