Watching you

‘Civil liberties campaigners have expressed alarm that millions of car journeys are to be stored on a national database for five years,’ reports AOL. ‘While the original period for which the data was planned to be held was two years, the Home Office has confirmed that it was now being kept for five years.’

This has come to light after a Freedom of information request by the Guardian newspaper which grandly references Jeremy Bentham to call the policy ‘Panopticon highway’.

What the Guardian, AOL (cookie, anyone?) and Keith from Inverness (‘it’s Big Brother!’) are getting so worked up about is the ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Recognition) system. This is a method of information gathering that has been around for years, anyone who has watched Traffic Cops will be familiar with the idea. Cameras linked up to computers with clever software which can ‘read’ number plates, then in a few nanoseconds (they promise) check that registration number against such databases as the DVLA, insurance company information and the Police National Computer. Handy to have, you might think? Not so Carl from North Yorkshire: ‘police state its just a way to spy on people would not give the plod the time of day there all full of shite.’ Carl goes on to say he had his van broken into and the police weren’t interested. In fairness they probably couldn’t follow Carl’s Joycean stream of consciousness rant. Full stops, Carl. I think Carl has perhaps been given a fixed penalty notice at some point. Ian from Brighton largely concurs with Carl: ‘Yet another nail in the coffin as we head to a total police state. This government has no interest in human rights when it is the motorist. This action must be stopped at all costs.’ ‘Will the government stop harassing motorists and catch real criminals?’ adds Colin from Bath. Henry Porter, shifting his Che Guevara beret, looking up at Paul Weller on the ‘Red Wedge’ tour poster for inspiration, Arlo Guthrie’s ‘Victor Jara’ playing in the background as he types, reports in the Guardian that ANPR: ‘is a system that was never sanctioned or debated in parliament and which threatens the freedom of movement, assembly and protest.’ He concludes: ‘With parliament dead from the neck up when it comes to issues of liberty, it is difficult to know how the ANPR surveillance and the equally important proposal to seize data concerning all phone calls, text messages and internet connections, can be resisted. But resist we must if we are to save our free society.’ Right on. What exactly is a free society, Henry? Pushed to its logical conclusion it is total liberty for every individual to live their lives exactly as they wish. In which case, I’m bigger, nastier and greedier than you, Henry, so I’m coming ‘round to your rather nice house tonight to take it over and bugger your wife. It’s my Right. The levels of self-righteous paranoia in the Guardian newsroom must be intoxicating. ‘I told you, Graham, didn’t I tell you,’ hot shot scoop news hound Henry taps an index finger on his reporter’s notepad, glances around the room nervously, adjusts his Robert Redford wedge culled from All The President’s Men, ‘they’re watching us!’

In the last couple of years the ANPR system has been expanded from mobile cameras mounted in Road Policing Group cars to static cameras placed on the main access roads into and out of most English towns and cities. A silent sentry. Or, if you like, ‘an invisible omniscience’. Obviously, given Red Ken’s iron grip on London with his Earth Saving congestion charge, I must confess a slight worry about future tax gathering uses for the cameras. Which might cause some fusing of ideals for your left wing, liberties for all, green campaigner at a later date.

I just don’t like paying, to be honest.

But what Henry, Carl and Brenda from Doncaster (‘bloody government snoopers!’) seem to be oblivious about is that the government are as keen to handcuff the police in red tape as they are to gather information about freedom fighting citizens (‘Power to the people!’ cries Woolfy Smith). The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 means that mounting even simple observations of suspected criminals by police has become at times like trying to run the 110 metre hurdles with a fridge strapped to your back. And the fact that the cases Henry Porter highlights – such as surveillance on the copper suspected of fiddling his invalidity – are recorded and in the public domain speaks volumes for the police’s limits and responsibilities.

And so, as Peter from Blackpool queries, what about the rights of the individual? The chances of the police or anybody being interested that you drive to work at 8:15AM Monday to Friday, that on Sunday morning you popped over to your Auntie Pauline’s to watch Country File or that you’re nipping across the Pennines to Birch Services on the M62 twice every month to have your end away in the Travelodge with some woman you met on the internet is slim. However, being alerted to the movements of a stolen car and its possible direction of travel might conceivably be of interest to ‘the plod’. And so might any leads built on information from a witness who manages to pass the last three digits of a registration number as a car speeds away from a school after abducting a child.

OK, then what about this five years business? declaims Aethelwulf from the Isle of Wight. Why would the police want the information to be held for so long? Five years, I mean? Come on! Robert Black, murdering bastard paedophile and long distance lorry driver was arrested in 1990, four years after he abducted and raped 10 year old Sarah Harper before throwing her – still alive – tied up and in a bin liner into the river Trent. A long way from her home in Leeds. He’d previously abducted, raped and murdered two other girls – Susan Maxwell, eleven years old when she was killed and five year old Caroline Hogg – while he was munching on his Yorkie and delivering white goods around the country to your home and mine. Had the police had a system that could be interrogated to find what vehicle was where and when at times of interest, perhaps Black’s name might have appeared earlier in the investigation. As it stands, any information gathered could possibly add to evidence at court.

By cosseting the devil’s advocate rights of the anonymous individual it protects the right to privacy of the paedophile that’s just snatched the child on its way home from school and the car thief that’s just put someone’s door through to take their car. The uninsured driver that’s about to right off your shiny new car. I wonder if Eric from Aberdeen will still think ANPR is ‘an infringement of [his] liberties’ the day when it’s his BMW that’s gone missing from the driveway or his child that’s in the boot of someone’s ‘dark-coloured, possibly blue’ Vauxhall Vectra on their way to being sodomized and murdered.

1984 copy



  1. technomist · September 16, 2008

    The lorry driver rapist you are referring to would already have had a tachograph in his cab, but interestingly, this does not seem to have assisted the police with their enquiries. Another expensive ‘solution’ that didn’t come up to expectations.


  2. guinnessorig · September 16, 2008

    Tachographs, even electronic ones, are not searchable on a an accessable database but must be viewed/downloaded from individual vehicles. Also, they only show the lengths of time a vehicle has been in motion and the speeds travelled. They are a health and safety device introduced by the EU and as an investigatory tool (in the UK, at least) only useful in cases of say death by dangerous driving involving a specific HGV. They have no application in the case of Robert Black.


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