National police conference on automatic number plate recognition

This speech is about the proportionate, transparent and effective use automatic number plate recognition (ANPR).

Thank you for inviting the commissioner to come and speak at your conference. He cannot be here in person but has sent me with his words to give you an insight into the surveillance camera code of practice and his role as commissioner.

Let me start by giving you a little background about his role as Surveillance Camera Commissioner:

  • it was created under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012
  • he was appointed by the Home Secretary but is independent from government
  • the role covers England and Wales
  • he’s entrusted to ensure that surveillance camera systems are used to support and protect communities – not spy on them

His role is threefold, to:

  • encourage compliance with the code
  • review the operation of the code
  • advise on any amendments to how the code should develop via the Annual Parliament Report (which incidentally is due to be published in a few weeks)

The code

The surveillance camera code of practice contains 12 guiding principles which if followed will mean cameras are only ever used proportionately, transparently and effectively.

The code also covers your obligations as data controller under the provisions of the Data Protection Act.

And as relevant authorities under the Protection of Freedoms Act, you must show the code due regard. So it must form part of your consideration in your use of surveillance camera systems. In case you’re wondering the other relevant authorities are Local Authorities, Police and Crime Commissioners and non Home Office police forces.

The code aims to promote proportionate, transparent and effective use of surveillance camera systems.

The commissioner

Prior to accepting this role he was Head of Intelligence at Barclays Bank and before that a police Commander having had responsibility for counter-terrorism investigations throughout the London 2012 Olympic Games.

So he gets the use of technology in supporting the executive arm of the state - supporting investigations and providing reassurance. He also gets how invasive it can be – and how the public trust must be protected. Once lost it is not easy to recover.

Importantly he also understands the speed at which technology develops – arguably quicker than governments can legislate – it can go from 0 to 60 in a flash. All these issues lie at the heart of his role.

Surveillance in the UK

In the UK CCTV is everywhere both publicly and privately and semi-privately owned. All of these models place different challenges on his role.

In general, surveillance is welcomed by the public. We use a phrase ‘surveillance by consent’ to mean the public consent to being observed where there is a pressing need and it is in their best interests. It has been described like policing by consent. But how much of a platform is given to those who object to the use of surveillance camera systems?

Synectics research showed 84% of people support CCTV in a public space – is this genuine informed consent? What about dual use? 20% crime prevention 80% traffic enforcement and revenue raising. These questions weren’t asked! Moreover, now that car tax licensing is going to be enforced by ANPR, will accusations about revenue generation increase?

ANPR use in the UK

This audience will know better than most that ANPR was first conceived, or at least thought of, as a tool for traffic management, legislation and enforcement. As its utility has become better recognised it is now seen as a potent intelligence tool for countering serious and organised crime and terrorism. Do we think this shift in gear comes without privacy issues or concerns from certain quarters of society? Actually does it come without concerns from the police itself, media or man or woman on the Clapham omnibus?

ANPR is used extensively in the UK. Police and local authorities are the dominant users but so do private companies e.g. private car parks. Massive potential for policing including:

  • vehicle tracking in real time and retrospectively
  • vehicle matching
  • geographical matching
  • incident analysis
  • network/convoy analysis
  • subject profile analysis

I’m sure you’re all familiar with these techniques but they also intrude on an individual’s privacy. Meagan has already spoken this morning about the privacy implications.

Let me now touch on the legality of police use of ANPR.

Royston – you are probably all familiar with the case – raised lots of important issues. Currently, there is no single law covering ANPR use – apart from the DPA because it constitutes personal data. I believe the argument goes as follows: Article 8 refers to the qualified privilege regarding interference into a person’s privacy by lawful use. Because there is no law that enables ANPR, Liberty will say that the use is unlawful (because they said so to the Commissioner and myself directly at a meeting a couple of weeks ago). This type of regulation already exists in certain countries – Norway for one! These types of arguments have been powerfully made at a recent conference I attended in Brussels. It is the commissioner’s responsibility to advise ministers going forward of any area meritworthy of regulatory change. I think it goes without saying that the more the relevant authorities utilising this legislation can demonstrate unequivocally the 12 principles, the less the pressure there be to recommend any regulatory change.

I will now touch on the key issues in relation to the code – proportionate, transparent and effective use.

Proportionate – have you established a legitimate need for your camera system? Do you undertake an annual review to establish that your camera system meets its stated purpose? Do you know that it meets its stated objective?

Transparent – how much do the public know about the outcomes delivered by your use of ANPR? Do you publish the use of ANPR by crime types in concluded cases?

Effective – are you confident that your system is working as intended? Are your cameras of the required standard? What about your maintenance arrangements? Are your installers versed in managing the mobile arrangements? Are your operators trained and aware of the systems and processes?

Within the commissioner’s first weeks in office he was challenged quite robustly on these issues by national media, predominantly the Independent and The Mail. His view was then and is now – the public must be informed of as much information as possible if trust is to be maintained.

For example – is there any intelligence reason that prevents highlighting how many ANPR cameras there are – this is not readily accessible and should be. This is a completely different question to where they are. Are the arguments to conceal the figures intelligently made? Are they not disclosed because the public might feel the size and scale of the operation is beyond what they deem acceptable? All these questions are rhetorical – but the debate must be ensued!

Finally, ANPR challenges will continue to evolve. For example, vehicle cloning will become more sophisticated. Serious and organised criminals will use other means to frustrate the technology.

We saw in October how ANPR usage has been introduced to help enforce recovery of Vehicle Excise Revenue. Surely, this represents one of the first occasions when the state is hot-wiring camera technology into the very fabric of our lives. Was this envisaged as being a primary function of ANPR – probably not. This isn’t a critical comment one way or the other – it is merely used as evidence of how technology informs future society and how it develops.

If that’s the case it is right and proper that every development is viewed not only through the eyes of law enforcement but through the multi varied prism of public opinion. The commissioner is determined to ensure proper scrutiny as befits an independent regulator.

The commissioner looks forward to working with you to ensure that police use of ANPR continues to be proportionate, effective and transparent.

Published 5 December 2014