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Number plate recognition poised for national UK rollout

Everywhere before you can say 'road pricing'?

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Automatic Number Plate Recognition systems are set to be deployed by police forces throughout the UK as a major plank of a campaign of "denying criminals the use of the roads." The system will link up to the DVLA, Police National Computer and a National Insurance Database, with these links alone giving it the capability of identifying untaxed, unroadworthy and uninsured vehicles, but they'll also facilitate police surveillance operations, the swapping of data on "prolific offenders" between forces and, well, other stuff... Take this, for instance:

"Eventually the database will link to most CCTV systems in town centres, meaning that all vehicles filmed on one of the many cameras protecting Bedford High Street, for instance, can be checked against the database and the movements of wanted cars traced to help with serious crime investigations."

The quotation is from a supplement to last week's issue of Bedfordshire on Sunday, paid for by the Bedfordshire Police Authority, but is based on a press release issued by the Authority earlier this year in support of "National APNR Day." Should this festival have passed you, like us, entirely by, you'll find some details here. Some 26 forces across the UK took part in the day, 21st May, checking 60,000 vehicles over a six hour period, resulting in 2,000 "activations", of which over 1,000 were reported for offences, with 65 arrests being made.

What happened to the rest of the 1,000 offenders? These will have been largely DVLA violations, possibly with some insurance offenders, although as far as we're aware the national insurance database is currently only partially online. A further report of the event from the BBC, here, claims a smaller number of forces and a larger number of arrests, but the reference to fixed penalty notices gives a signpost to how the system will operate once it's fully deployed.

You may, rightly, wonder about Bedfordshire Police's fevered promises regarding CCTV cameras. In the first place, CCTV and ANPR equipment are two separate things, with CCTV cameras not being designed for, and most certainly not being capable of, number plate recognition. And in the second place, there are legal restrictions governing the use of CCTV cameras in public places, meaning that prior to adding ANPR to CCTV stations the operating authorities should really be considering their legal position.

Deployment at CCTV stations is still some years down the line, but the Police Information Technology Organisation (PITO) ANPR FAQ lists it as one of four classes of ANPR system: "In-car devices; Transportable (e.g. mobile units that can be set up at the roadside); CCTV (that ?piggy-back? on existing systems); Fixed gantry systems that continuously monitor a stretch of road (e.g. in ports)."

So far, ANPR systems have been used in a relatively small number of tests, conducted by a relatively small number of forces with mobile units, i.e. monitoring so far has been highly selective. The second phase of tests, over 23 forces, ends in December, with a national rollout (probably the point at which gantries and CCTV piggybacking will be considered) anticipated for next summer.

How widespread will ANPR be? By its nature, such systems can only work effectively if they have a high percentage chance of identifying offenders. A mobile system swoop on a small number of roads over a couple of days will certainly produce a large number of offenders and a nice press release, but won't have more than a symbolic effect on the problems the system is intended to tackle. So rationally, if they're going ahead, ANPR should follow, perhaps even exceed, speed cameras when it comes to pervasiveness.

The approach used with the current test systems, of pairing camera teams with response teams, clearly won't work with permanently-sited systems, so there has to be an automated penalty system (as with speed cameras), and with this comes a need for corroboration systems in the event of disputes about accuracy, who was driving, obscuring of number plates, and so on.

The Association of Chief Police Officers' does not yet have policy guidance for ANPR, but the Road Policing Technology Code of Practice covers speed cameras in some depth, and will perhaps give you some indicators of the issues involved. You'll note there are issues involving privacy and retention of data, and one could reasonably presume that the widening of deployment and purpose of ANPR will require similar guidance.

What kind of systems can we anticipate? Through CCTV, the UK is already one of the most watched countries in the world, and the widespread deployment of ANPR will add to this. It will, certainly, reduce the number of dangerous cars, and may even reduce insurance premiums (it's the prospect of saving money, not necessarily the same thing, which has induced the insurance companies to chip in for the database), but with this we get the extra watching, for free.

Aside from improving and extending their data on the movements of 'known villains', the police will be logging the movements of everybody else as well. This data will likely be thrown away after a period, but is unlikely to be thrown away immediately - they demand retention of mobile phone and internet records, so the police data retention policies will at best be on a par with these.

Funnily enough, this trackability is what's going to happen anyway, a few further years down the line, when the government's plans for satellite tracking of vehicles and for associated road pricing schemes become feasible. But, erm, if we end up with a system with similar functionality based on ANPR before then, it's perfectly possible the show could be brought forward. Or, given that Transport for London is already operating a road-pricing scheme based on ANPR, there's a logic to joint police-local authority deployments in major cities. So pretty soon, we wouldn't be at all surprised if somebody started using the magic words, "pay for itself." ®

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