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'Ought to have no place in a democratic society'

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Three civil liberties groups have complained to the information commissioner about police plans to install ANPR cameras around Royston in Hertfordshire, claiming they are unlawful.

No CCTV, Privacy International and Big Brother Watch say that they fear the project might foreshadow similar work across the country. "The use of ANPR by the police in the UK has not been as the result of any Parliamentary debate, Act of Parliament or even a Statutory Instrument," they say in their complaint. The government is proposing a code of conduct on the use of ANPR, but the complaint says this would not be legally enforceable.

Among other points, the groups argue that ANPR data is kept for too long, noting that police in Toronto only retain such information for 72 hours. It quotes a document from Hertfordshire police saying that images of vehicles are kept for 90 days with other data, including the numberplates, retained for two years. This increases to five years if the vehicle is on a watch list.

"The use of ANPR as a mass surveillance tool constitutes a major assault on our common law foundations and the rule of law," said Charles Farrier of No CCTV. "It is a system of automated checkpoints that ought to have no place in a democratic society."

Large cities including central London, Birmingham and Manchester already have ANPR 'rings of steel' which record the numberplates and images of all vehicles entering and leaving a zone. There were 4,225 such cameras throughout England and Wales connected to the National ANPR Database in early January, according to figures published through Parliament.

Hertfordshire police defended the plans. ANPR co-ordinator Inspector Andy Piper said: "As I'm sure the majority of Royston residents are already aware, the cameras - which aren't due to be installed until the end of June - are entirely lawful, have been funded by local businesses and the town council and are welcomed locally.

Adding that the force adheres to national guidelines, Piper said: "We use ANPR to target criminals and unsafe drivers, not law-abiding motorists, and have caught thousands of burglars, robbers, uninsured drivers, drug dealers and other serious criminals. We repeat again the offer to these national groups, who use Royston as an example for their national campaigns, the opportunity to come and find out more about how we use ANPR in Hertfordshire and discuss their concerns."

Published minutes from a meeting of North Herts council minuted Insp Piper as describing Royston as a "location of importance on the borders of Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire, with people from those counties and from Bedfordshire also travelling through the area". He also said that each camera cost £7,000, with the columns for each site costing from £7,500, and that they have a success rate of 95% at minimum.

Nigel Brookes, editor of the Royston Weekly News, said that reaction in the town had been mixed. "Some feel it offers some protection, but there are quite a few who feel the other way, that it's an invasion of privacy," he said. "We've had quite a few letters saying that if they are just for catching criminals, why is the information kept on police records?"

A website set up by a local group in Royston, which purported to disclose the locations of the camera sites, is currently offline. A spokeswoman for Hertfordshire police said that although the cameras are not covert and are visible at the roadside, the force would not encourage the publication of the locations.

However, she denied reports that its closure was due to pressure from police. "We did not ask for the website to be taken down - nor could we," she said. "Quite the opposite, we invited them to share their concerns with us and find out how ANPR is used in Herts. They haven't taken us up on this offer."

The Information Tribunal recently ordered Devon and Cornwall Constabulary to disclose the locations of its fixed ANPR cameras, following a refused Freedom of Information request from Guardian Government Computing. The force has said it will appeal.

This article was originally published at Guardian Government Computing.

Guardian Government Computing is a business division of Guardian Professional, and covers the latest news and analysis of public sector technology. For updates on public sector IT, join the Government Computing Network here.

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