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Central London webcams go dark for anti-war demo

Likely a lucky coincidence this time, but next?

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Conspiracy theories, anyone? Yesterday at least a million people took to London's streets to mount the UK's biggest ever anti-war protest. And yesterday, webcams along the marchers' route were down "for operational reasons."

Operational reasons, old lags will recall, is British policespeak for 'I'm not going to tell you,' while one milion is policespeak for two million. But before we leap to the conclusion that the authorities specifically had the plugs pulled we should note a strange coincidence; tomorrow, London's congestion charge will come into force, phalanxes of traffic cameras will be fired in anger for the first time*, the route of the march lay within the central charging zone, so the webcams really could have been down for engineering.

Transport for London, which operates the congestion charging scheme, has a large network of traffic cameras, which can be seen via BBC Radio London's 'jamcam' page, here. Yesterday and today the site was reporting that TfL was carrying out maintenance, but earlier today the central London cameras all seemed to be working again. You can tell this because they show you pictures of cars not moving. At time of writing, however, many were out again for "operational reasons."

Traffic cameras and charge zone cameras, however, are not the same thing. The traffic cameras cover the whole of Greater London, are fewer in number and do an entirely different job (or at least, we hope they do). There are around 800 charge zone cameras around the central zone, their job being to log the number plates of incoming cars and check that the £5 entry charge has been paid for them. Charge zone cameras have to be aimed at different areas and optimised for a radically different task, and while they will undoubtedly produce data that would of value to the security services, their utility during a demo seems doubtful to us. Snapshots of people's shins, anyone?

Nor will the charge cameras be recording data that you could put on the web - not deliberately, anyway. According to Mayor Livingstone, only vehicles that haven't had the charge paid will be recorded, but as this would require the data being thrown away forever as soon as the database query was complete, we very much doubt that the police would like this. The cameras will produce a massive amount of data about movement of vehicles in central London, and it is inconceivable that the authorities would allow this, complete with data on law-abiding terrorists who'd paid the charge, to be thrown away. Throw away the picture the camera takes, sure (this is probably what the techies have told Ken), but throw away the number? No.

The information provided by the demo/traffic cameras is also interesting to the authorities, but for different reasons. As they cover all of London's major roads they provide a network that can be used to watch the progress of major demonstrations. In many cases the TfL network probably doesn't add significantly to the police's own monitoring systems, which we presume must be substantially better than the stuff that's freely available on the web. That however may not always be the case; the network will have been beefed-up for the congestion charge, and will no doubt be beefed up a lot more, unless the charge crashes and burns completely.

So although the police might not want or need it now, they could do in the future. But what about the other side? Webcams have provided some useful information for demonstrators and protesters in the past, but the more they get deployed, the more potentially useful they'll be, and the more likely the authorities are going to be to want to pull the plugs, just in case.

Do they want the world to be able to see Parliament Square being trashed in real time, and Tony Blair, David Blunkett and Jack Straw being hung by the heels from the Downing Street railings? Actually, in the event of that last they'd probably be past caring, but anticipating lesser worst possible cases they surely would want the networks switched off. This time around it might have been a coincidence caused by the timing and the ownership of the network, but next time, or the next, it won't be.

Mind you, given the track record of the outfit putting the congestion charging system in place, there's probably a near-limitless stock of excuses available. They should probably TM the expression "not working, for operational reasons", and by this time tomorrow they quite possibly will have. ®

* Actually, this is not entirely true. London Mayor Ken Livingstone was apologising earlier today to the 45 people who have already received penalty charge notices, saying somebody had "pressed the wrong button." Given that the cameras must have been clocking quite a lot of people driving in the zone without paying the charge, seeing you don't quite have to yet, we suppose it could have been a whole lot worse.

Subsidiary, Related Conspiracy Theory: Last week's Observer carried a bizarre-sounding claim that as of tomorrow, the charge cameras would create a sophisticated 'ring of steel' around the capital. How so? Because the cameras include a second function, hatched by the police, MI5 and Special Branch, allowing "hundreds of cameras to register individual faces." The system includes "facial recognition software which automatically identifies suspects or known criminals who enter the eight-square-mile zone."

Yeah, right. So it has facial recognition software that works, even works through the dirt and reflection of a car windscreen, it covers a different part of vehicle from the number plate scan, and it's doing an entirely different scan that requires vastly more data to be sent to an entirely different place. Frankly, only an idiot would believe this tripe. Oh... Sorry, Declan.

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