Monday, 26 September 2011

Number Plate Recognition Kerfuffle in Birmingham

Automatic Number Plate Recognition and CCTV are used all over the place. When I drive into John Lewis' car park in Norwich I get scanned by both (I think - ANPR certainly). In many cases it's Quite Useful, I suppose, but things aren't always as straight forward...

It seems that in Birmingham in 2010 CCTV and ANPR was being targeted at areas with high muslim populations. Hmmm, now that strikes me as "dodgy" at least - to start with it's indiscriminate surveillance of everyone.Not to mention a potential breach of human rights legislation.

It's interesting (although complex) to consider quite what happens when ICT and human rights laws collide. We can (and do) monitor loads of stuff using ICT - your ISP is probably monitoring, in a way, whatever you do each time you use Google. If you're reading this blog at school then there are certainly people monitoring what you're doing. Are they infringing your human rights? Or are they just making sure you're not up to something illegal or unwise?

In this case, the authorities soon backed down and cancelled the scheme (I was tempted to write 'idea', but I'm not sure they had much of one really. The legal case against the scheme looked sound and it would have been difficult, at least, to justify that much surveillance of ordinary people without any form of intelligence (but, then, I watch Spooks remember...).

A report into the scheme, published in September of 2010, concluded that it was, indeed, largely illegal and had little justification. It highlights, however, the difficulties that the "authorities" have with the potential to use ICT and the legal safeguards which protect all of us. How far should they go? Compared with how far they could go?

The newly elected Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition Home Secretary, Theresa May, called for a significant reduction in the use of CCTV and ANPR in July 2010 - interestingly just after the Birmingham scheme was withdrawn. I'm not entirely certain how that fits with the publication of CCTV images after the inner city riots of the summer of 2011 though - seems that the government thinks CCTV is good some of the time but not all of it.

And I'm not quite sure how they square the legal and ethical circle of that.

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