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UK car tracking database delayed to boost capacity

While Yorkshire police plan handheld checks

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The police have delayed crank starting their national car tracking database so they can keep more data about more people for longer periods of time.

Meanwhile, bleeding edge top coppers in West Yorkshire are working out how to arm bobbies on the beat with links to their local auto number plate recognition (ANPR) system. They want bobbies to have savvy intelligence that can tell law abiding citizens from rule breakers at their fingertips.

By now the national system, which grew out of an existing MI5 ANPR camera network, should have been clocking 35m registration plates a day with cameras placed on roadsides in town centres and major roads throughout the country. Yet the national centre is a mess of wires while police techies boost the system's capacity to 50m spooks a day.

The national ANPR database was due to be fired up in March but will not see life now till mid-summer because the original blue print has been extended, said John Dean, National ANPR co-ordinator for the Association of Chief Police Officers.

The central database will also keep details of peoples' car journeys for five years, said Dean. A limit of two years will apply only to data kept by regional forces.

Police ANPR records, which note who's gone where in their car, have caused concern on both sides of the surveillance cameras. Deputy Information Commissioner Jonathan Bamford is rewriting the CCTV code of practice to account for the bells and whistles that computers have added to Britain's network of surveillance cameras.

The CCTV user group, which represents local authorities and other proponents of surveillance such as shopping centres, has also begun to feel out of its depth.

Peter Fry, director of the CCTV User group said he was "concerned" about the links being created between town centre CCTV systems and ANPR systems, both of which are often operated by the police.

"Retaining images is fair enough if someone has committed a crime, but if not its an issue of how long the images should be kept," said Fry.

ACPO has also consulted the Information Commissioner, Britain's privacy guardian, and come up with a set of rules to restrict the use of the data collected by ANPR cameras.

However, it appears the restraints on police use of ANPR data have been dictated by pragmatism rather than a concern for civil liberties.

Giving every bobby free access to the system would overload the system, "make it unstable, slow it down", said Dean. With 50m clocks a day, over 18 billion ANPR records would be snatched every year. Queries of such a database might prove demanding if they were not managed properly.

ANPR records younger than 91 days would "probably" therefore be available only to police analysts, said Dean.

Anyone accessing older journey records will have to seek the signed authorisation of a police superintendent. Data between two and five years old would only be available to sleuths with permission from a chief officer, "and only for the utmost serious crime or terrorism." Audit trails would also record every query that was made.

Nevertheless, the West Yorkshire police force, which last month gave beat bobbies handheld computers with links to intelligence databases, is trying to add its ANPR database into the mix.

Paul Friday, director of information systems at West Yorkshire Police, said he had asked RIM, maker of the Blackberry handheld computer given to his coppers, about the technicalities of an ANPR link.

The police have most streets of Bradford covered by ANPR cameras, while Leeds is being wired. "Once that's stable we'll look at taking it onto BlackBerry," said Friday.®

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