Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/02/12/road_pricing_and_surveillance/

24x7 vehicle surveillance, and how road pricing helps it along

Transport Minister's mythspeaks...

By John Lettice

Posted in Government, 12th February 2007 16:01 GMT

We said they'd be sorry when the Ten Downing Street e-petitions system first opened for business. And just a few months later we are confronted by the spectacle of a 'stop road pricing' petition soaring effortlessly past the million mark, and Transport Minister Douglas Alexander trudging round the media claiming that the signatories have been misled by "misplaced fears", "falsehoods" and "myths."

Alexander contrived to say "myths" three times on this morning's Today programme, but regrettably neglected to either detail them or refute them. He did however say that he would "listen to the people", and that is was important to deliberate, discuss and then to take a decision. Over the weekend he had said that although trials were due to start in the next few years, no decision had yet been made on whether or not to introduce a national road pricing system.

Which, if so, possibly allows us to nail one myth. In July 2005, explaining the cancellation of the Lorry Road User Charging scheme (which had been going through development as a notapilot for a national road charging scheme), then Transport Minister Alistair Darling told Parliament:

"Mr Speaker a great deal of work has already been done on some of these issues in the development of the Lorry Road User Charging scheme. This has confirmed that a distance-based charge has the potential to be a workable and practical way forward.

"But our thinking on national road pricing has developed further. We are now taking forward work on a national system of road pricing, so it is right for us to take forward the plans for distance based lorry charging as part of the wider work on national road pricing - to work for a single comprehensive, cost-effective system.

"So although the current procurement for lorry road user charging will not continue, we will continue to work with industry and ensure that we carry the full experience gained from the project into the wider work to develop a national road pricing system for cars and lorries."

There remains just about enough wiggle room there for it not to be read as an absolute commitment to a national scheme, but it's close, so it's helpful for Alexander to be dispelling the myths that were inadvertently (surely...) presented to Parliament by his predecessor.

But what about the "myths" promulgated by the backers of the petition? It's difficult to nail down the 'many' claims Alexander says are unfounded, but he did identify two in an interview with the Times. These are that a national road pricing scheme will be used for 24x7 surveillance of motorists, and that it will be used to police speed limits. Alexander has responded by saying that there would be "safeguards" to deal with the privacy issue, and that the system would not be used to catch drivers for speeding.

Observers of the government data kleptocracy will be familiar with the "safeguards" gambit, and of course one would not need to implement privacy safeguards if one were not threatening privacy, right? So it's not exactly a denial.

Alexander seems to contend that the myths and falsehoods emanate from the Association of British Drivers, the primary backer of the petition. The ABD makes its pitch here, stating that "Britain's drivers will be targeted 24 hours a day 7 days a week by a spy network comprising satellites, ANPR cameras, and roadside tracking devices. Privacy will become a thing of the past."

This does not seem an unreasonable statement of the position, and if you substituted 'monitored' for 'targeted' and deleted 'spy' and the privacy claim, even Transport Ministers might be pushed to say it was anything other than a statement of fact.

Hence the safeguards, and hence the need at this juncture for us to turn to the traditional exception to the safeguards, law enforcement. Police and security services have not, so far as we're aware, emitted a cheep on the subject of road pricing schemes, but ACPO has some well documented plans which are most certainly relevant.

A road pricing system charges for road use, and doesn't directly do any of the other stuff. The data it produces could however be extremely useful to the enforcement arm, the one that's the beneficiary of the safeguards exception, that is busily constructing a national vehicle movement database, and that intends to retain records of all vehicle movements for a full five years. ACPO's March 2005 document, Denying Criminals the Use of the Roads explains in some detail how its national vehicle surveillance system will be built and will operate, and puts forward some fascinating examples of how it will operate in the closely-surveilled future.

The document promotes the police's exploitation of "the full potential of ANPR" and "successor Electronic Vehicle Identification technologies". This will involve the establishment of "a national ANPR camera and reader infrastructure utilising police, local authority, Highways Agency and other partner and commercial sector cameras."

The strategy will include "Working with PITO [Police Information Technology Organisation] and others to ensure vehicle intelligence and ANPR systems are integrated into other key national information management developments and IT infrastructures"; "Working to improve the quality and timeliness of intelligence databases feeding into ANPR systems and develop links to further databases at national and Force levels"; and "Promoting the develop of Electronic Vehicle Identification (EVI) technology. EVI offers the potential of supplementing and enhancing ANPR. EVI will utilise the same back end and business processes as ANPR."

We should note from this first that ACPO sees its current ANPR system as evolving as future technologies come on-stream (it's already evolving a wide range of systems by lobbying for the addition of ANPR functionality and their co-option to the police network), and second that it's mustard-keen on EVI. ACPO has also made this clear in other venues, notably in its contribution to the Transport Committee's Cars of the Future report.

EVI is a key component of road charging, because in order to charge a driver you need to identify a vehicle, and the EVI requirements of a national road pricing scheme are substantial. A 2004 feasibility study into road pricing for the Department of Transport concluded that charging by time, place and distance was becoming more feasible (embarrassingly it cites as evidence the LRUC, cancelled the following year, and the German lorry-charging scheme, which had been subject to huge delays and cost overruns).

In order to implement it, however, it would be necessary to use the GPS capabilities of the EU system, Galileo, and it felt that "the technology needed to implement a national distance-based scheme will need generally to be fitted to vehicles during the manufacturing process, since its complexity and the potential for interference between it and other electronic components, and the need for robustness, would make retrofitment difficult and expensive."

This would require a Vehicle Directive from the EU, but as can be seen here, the EU has been busy on EVI for some time.

Other technological developments such as speed governors, remote disabling and biometric activation are also on ACPO's wishlist (see Cars of the Future), and Brussels is likely to be a help with at least some of them. Speed governors in particular, although not massively sexy, could provide a mechanism whereby the 24x7 network could be used to enforce speed limits. Technologically there's no reason why a satellite and EVI box road pricing system couldn't be used to levy speeding fines, but there are obvious political difficulties to using it directly in this way, hence Alexander's denial.

ACPO intends to track everyone using the latest available technology, and the DFT's own studies reckon satellite tracking and boxes built into all cars will be necessary to support national road pricing. In the absence of any categorical statements from the government saying that the police won't be given access to the system, we must surely conclude that the ABD "myth" of 24x7 surveillance and a compulsory black box fitted to all vehicles is entirely accurate.

It is not however the national road pricing system (or the ID scheme, or the Children's Index, or any of dozens of other schemes) that is of itself evil and must be stopped. The difficulties arise from the interaction of two philosophies. At the government end, data gathering and sharing is seen unquestionably as A Good Thing, and to this end a growing list of security operatives and local and national government officials gain the ability to share your data because it's in your interest (and what have you got to hide?). But don't worry, they only act on this data if it's important that they do - 'trust me, I'm a borough surveyor.' Absolute rights to privacy are seen as old-fashioned, an obstruction to the deployment of the technology that is going to make our lives so much better.

Meanwhile as a publicly-stated (repeatedly) cornerstone of its IT strategy the Police Service intends to broaden and deepen its acquisition and use of data ("develop links to further databases"), and in the name of fighting crime and terrorism, or improving road safety, the safeguards exception will always apply to them. The ultimate effect of this can be visualised with the aid of some Boys-in-Blue-Skying in section 4 of Denying Criminals the Use of the Roads, "A day in the life of ANPR - how it could look." Is it worse that this is how they think it will look, or that they think it's a good thing that it will look like this? You decide.

ANPR is to the fore in the fictional town of Sandford, ACPO tells us. "Sandford had the foresight to invest in the extensive Local Authority CCTV scheme, as part of its CDRP [Crime & Disorder Partnership] strategy. This involved ensuring the scheme was ANPR enabled and paying for half a dozen extra cameras to cover some key routes into the town. Sandford has also benefited from force level links with the Highways Agency, which means that ANPR read data is available about vehicles travelling on the nearby motorway. Chief Superintendent Jones has also pooled investment with his adjoining division. This has allowed them to cover some key back routes between the two, regularly used by criminals, with a number of strategically located ANPR cameras. As these have infrared capability, they provide intelligence 24 hours a day."

This allows some interesting databases to interact. For example, continues Jones, "We recently linked into the ANPR system of over 40 of our garage forecourts. They benefit from our intelligence telling them which vehicles to take payment from before they serve them. In return, we get a considerable reduction in forecourt crime, more intelligence on vehicle movements and confirmation of the identities of those using the cars."

Unhappily, Jones doesn't explain how Sandford nick knows whether or not customers are going to pay, nor does he say how the reactions of the lucky victims are managed by the unfortunate cashiers. On which subject, according to his colleague, DI Williams, "We expect to gain about £50,000 income this year from hypothecation of ANPR fixed penalty tickets under Project Laser 3. We have already invested that income in a full time Intelligence Researcher, an extra part time Inputter, as well contributing half a post to the force Central Ticket Office."

Over at serious crimes, DCI McKinnon says ANPR has revolutionised reactive crime investigation. "For example, following a recent murder, targeted enquiries with witnesses identified from ANPR reads as being in the area during the material times not only saved considerable time and resources compared to the old road check methods, it was more accurate and identified two key witnesses. Most important of all it also provided crucial evidence as to the time, date, location and direction of travel of the prime suspect’s vehicle. Her CID use it regularly."

This process, just in case you failed to notice, will have involved going through all of the vehicle movement records for a specific time in a specific area, then identifying and contacting drivers who were in the vicinity at the time of the crime. Over at the ANPR intercept team, PC Brown points out that high speed chases are now needed less frequently, because the CCTV system in Sandford allows them to "use the traffic control system to change traffic lights and block the target vehicles in traffic." Congestion as a crime-fighting weapon - splendid. Much, much more can be found in the full document. ®