How Britain exported next-generation surveillance

James Bridle writes: It was a cool, quiet Monday evening in northeast 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 5:07 p.m. 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 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.

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. [Continue reading…]

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