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Police number plate cameras may breach RIPA - Commissioner

Unauthorised surveillance. Of most of the population...

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Police use of Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras could 'break human rights law' according to some reports. Which, it would seem to us, is a novel way to categorise the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, the Act police procedures appear to break. This had not previously been thought to be a landmark of human rights legislation, but go on then, blame the Human Rights Act and move swiftly on to blaming Europe, why don't you?

ANPR's problem has been spotted by Chief Surveillance Commissioner Sir Andrew Leggatt, part guardian of liberty, part doormat, who notes in his annual report that RIPA requires authorisation for operations involving intrusive surveillance. This is usually granted for surveillance operations on named suspects, but clearly fixed ANPR cameras scanning for large numbers are suspects (e.g. those recorded as not having tax, insurance or MoT) don't readily fit into such a system. Police are also busily building a national 24x7 vehicle movement database intended to record all passing number plates, everywhere, at the rate of 50 million a day, records to be retained for two years. Or actually, six years, or forever - see Spy Blog for details.

"24x7 vehicle movement database" is actually how the police describe it, and from the point of view of a Surveillance Commissioner you'd think that was a dead giveaway. The system doesn't just track named suspects, even hundreds of thousands or a few millions of named suspects, it tracks all vehicles, keeping the data so that it can be mined to discover the movements of people who at some point in the future become suspects. So effectively, everybody is a suspect.

Has Leggatt actually noticed this? He describes ANPR as "very effective in crime reduction", and "a prime example of intelligence-led policing", and urges Ministers in Scotland and the UK (RIPA covers both, although there are some devolved features in Scotland) to amend the law in order to avoid evidence being challenged in court.

Which we're sure is all very helpful of him. But we're not quite sure we can follow the reasoning. If it is the case that police use of ANPR is starting to constitute unauthorised surveillance under the terms of RIPA, would that not be what we'd understand as breaking the law? In that case, mightn't a Surveillance Commissioner be expected to suggest to them that they stop breaking the law, at least until the law is changed to their satisfaction? Or maybe he's just not sure whether or not they're breaking the law, or at what point the growing network is going to start breaking the law. Maybe he should ask an expert about this - the Surveillance Commissioner, maybe? ®

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