Britain’s secret police
The UK’s desperate attempts to keep its roadside surveillance network under wraps.
We’ve lost, our lawyer predicted late in the afternoon. He was right.
It was a day that had started well, with doubts from the judges about the police argument that they should be able to keep the locations of 45 automatic numberplate recognition (ANPR) cameras secret. But, as the lawyer guessed, it wasn’t going to swing our way: the day finished with the police finally being allowed to reject the Freedom of Information request I had filed nearly three years earlier.
I’d first written about the way police in London use ANPR cameras—the next generation technology that encircles the city and scans your vehicle registration and store the details in a huge database— in 2007,but once I started looking for them I spotted new cameras sprouting on roads all over the country.
They weren’t all configured in so-called “rings of steel” like London’s, with every way in and out of an area covered. In many cases in oddly-chosen single locations. Since they weren’t in rings, and seemed pretty easy to spot, I wondered: what was the point? I put in Freedom of Information requests to four of England’s rural police forces, with the idea of writing a geeky feature about police ANPR outside cities for the specialist press.
And that was when things got interesting. All four forces refused my request for transparency, so I decided to dig deeper. To do so, I concentrated on one force, Devon and Cornwall. Not only had it publicised its ANPR deployment online and in a reality TV show about cops, it also appeared to have cameras at just one location: the M5 motorway, the main road into its patch from the rest of England.
Surely anyone wanting to avoid being spotted could simply drive around them, I thought?
There are several stages to appealing an FOI request, and they all took months —but the arguments used all seemed weak, so I just kept filling in the forms. After nearly two years, an information tribunal decided in my favour, telling Devon and Cornwall Constabulary to release the locations. This led to kudos in the office and the opportunity to write another piece. But it didn’t produce the data.
Having managed to get the tribunal re-run, Devon and Cornwall Constabulary threw the book at me — actually, a blue ring-binder with hundreds of pages of evidence on how police ANPR worked, that used to convince the tribunal it needed locational secrecy.
This dossier confirmed that serious criminals and vandals were spotting, evading and damaging cameras and admitted that the national network was “patchy”, because separate police forces had taken their own decisions on deployment.
And, bizarrely, the evidence to stop disclosure of the locations of next-generation police cameras in Devon and Cornwall actually included nearly 30 locations of police ANPR cameras in other places. Along with my own observations, this led me to conclude that many forces had simply placed cameras near their borders — something which perhaps makes sense if you feel you’re defending your area, but also helped explain the odd locations. Rural forces appeared to envy London’s ring of steel, but with vast areas to cover with a few dozen cameras they were actually setting up sieves.
The Guardian’s day in the tribunal, win or lose, meant that we could use the information contained in the binder, and we did. What would have been a little-noticed feature in a specialist magazine ended up as a page lead story in the paper, and the disclosed material has become a major source for Ring of Steel, James Bridle’s MATTER article on networked surveillance, which came out last week. (You can read a preview of that story here on Medium).
In terms of what they represent, you can see these police cameras in different ways. You can see them as a crucial method for tracking criminal activity— the police clearly do. Or you can see them as a nasty example of the surveillance state with a pointlessly long retention period.
I see them as a botched project. ANPR is a technique that is arguably proportionate to the security threats to central London, but it was extended across the country by local police forces who often thought parochially. They chose permanent locations for non-covert cameras on busy roads that had to remain secret to be effective. Perhaps they planned to build up their networks over time, but then the central money stopped flowing.
The M5 cameras I noticed nearly five years ago in Devon and Cornwall’s territory are still there, by the way. There’s one covering each lane, plus the hard shoulder, in both directions.
There’s no sign to tell you a camera is taking down your details, but you can easily see them in different ways, whether it’s from the road or through Google Streetview. You could skip a stretch of the motorway to drive around them with no great difficulty; Britain’s roads have evolved to allow movement, not to help the police monitor it.
The result is that they just don’t work. Outside a few fully encircled areas, the reality is that anyone with the motivation has an excellent chance of dropping through a hole in these sieves of steel.
To find out more about how the British police have pioneered a troubling form of networked surveillance that is now being rolled out worldwide, you can become a MATTER Member. It’s just 99c a month to read all our stories on the web, in ebook and audiobook form.