a policeman watches protesters in 2003: CHRIstopher furlong/getty images

Secret systems made visible

A preview of MATTER’s new story, Ring of Steel

By James Bridle

IT WAS A COOL, QUIET MONDAY EVENING in north-east England when the computer first told them about Peter Chapman. The clock read a little after five, and two officers from Cleveland police were cruising in their patrol car.

A screen lit up next to them: the on-board computer was flashing an alert from the local police network. The message told them the target was a blue Ford Mondeo and gave them its registration number.

It was only a few minutes before they came across the car and pulled it over with a sounding of their siren. Inside was Chapman, a 33-year-old convict wanted for questioning in connection with a string of offences, including arson and theft. The officers verified his identity and took him to a station just a few miles away.

At 5:07pm on October 26, 2009, just 20 minutes before he was arrested, Chapman had driven past an Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) camera stationed next to the road. As his car passed, the camera recorded its registration number, together with the time and location, and sent the information to Cleveland Police’s internal computer network, where it was checked against a hotlist downloaded from Britain’s central police database. There was a hit: a request to detain the anyone driving Chapman’s car had been entered into the system three days earlier.

Once the computers had processed their search — a matter of fractions of a second — the command to apprehend the driver was broadcast to local officers, who stopped and arrested Chapman as soon as they were able.

This feat was made possible by the continuous operation of a vast automated surveillance network that sits astride Britain’s roads. The technology — known as License Plate Recognition (LPR) in the US, where it is also used — captures and stores data on up to 15 million journeys in the UK each day and stores them for future investigations. It is the most extensive system of its kind in the world. Yet the true extent of the network, the areas it covers, and the locations of the cameras, is a matter of secrecy. In order to function fully, say the police, such details cannot be revealed.

As a result, we do not know precisely how the technology is used, nor how it is abused. It is only in cases like Peter Chapman’s that this secret system becomes visible.

When Chapman’s car triggered that alert on the evening of October 26, it took the police just 20 minutes to find and stop him. But, as a later investigation discovered, it was not the first warning that had been issued. In fact, a total of 16 ANPR alerts had been put out over the previous three days.

On the night of October 23, Chapman’s vehicle had twice been spotted in Cleveland, first at 9:30pm and again at 9:46pm. It was seen subsequently at 6:42pm, 7:30pm and 7:42pm the following day. On October 25, he was recorded at 10:26am, 11:31am and 11:59am. Cameras in neighbouring Durham logged him at 7:48pm and 8:25pm.

As the night went on, he took a drive that was noted in Cleveland at 11:58pm and in nearby North Yorkshire at 12:18am and 12:49am.

Finally, on October 26 — the day he was stopped — he triggered alerts at 1:38pm and again at 2:02pm. It was only late that afternoon, after the Cleveland alert at 5:07pm, that definitive action led to his arrest.

The combined area covered by Cleveland, Durham and North Yorkshire police forces is over 10,000 square kilometres. It is policed by close to 5,000 officers and home to almost 2 million people — similar in size to Houston, Texas, but spread across an area 10 times greater.

The report for Chapman’s vehicle said the driver was “to be immediately stopped”, but it was only graded as medium priority. In truth, the alerts were just a tiny handful of those that tumble onto police computers in a never-ending avalanche of data: in Cleveland alone, roadside cameras generate around 2,500 alerts every day.

Officers were sent to find his car six times, but for four days attempts had proved futile: after all, knowing where a vehicle had been 10 minutes earlier is not necessarily enough to find it on Britain’s crowded road network.

There is a reason so much is known about Chapman’s arrest: it was the subject of an extensive investigation by Britain’s law enforcement watchdog, the Independent Police Complaints Commission. And the reason for their inquiry was that Chapman’s capture, rather than being a striking model of efficient police work, was a disaster.

Chapman had been wanted for arson and theft, but he was also a convicted rapist. And after his arrest he made a startling confession: he had murdered Ashleigh Hall, a 17-year-old student from the nearby town of Darlington.

Chapman had met her on Facebook, posing as a teenager in order to win her trust. On Sunday evening, two days and eight alerts after the request to apprehend him had been made, Hall told her mother she was spending the night at a friend’s house.

On Tuesday, Chapman led police officers to her body, hidden in a field by the roadside just a few miles away from where they had pulled him over.

To find out how the British police have pioneered a troubling form of networked surveillance that is now being rolled out worldwide, visit MATTER and read the rest of Ring of Steel.

It’s just 99c to get the remaining 6,500 words, on the web, in ebook and audiobook form.

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