U.K. to set up massive national drivers' surveillance scheme

Published 14 April 2008

Hundreds of monitoring stations would be used to track cars every five seconds — with daily itemized accounts of all trips made by Britain’s thirty million drivers; move is part of a national pay-as-you-drive road pricing plan; government says plan will reduce congestion and pollution

The United Kingdom is often called the Surveillance Society, what with the hundreds of thousands of CCTVs on street corners and along highways. The Labor Party government wants to take a step further as plans were revealed for a pay-as-you-drive tax using the ability of cameras to monitor motorists’ every move. The Sunday Express’s Kirsty Buchana writes that hundreds of monitoring stations would be used to track cars every five seconds — with daily itemized accounts of all trips made by Britain’s thirty million drivers. The monitoring equipment needed to target road users round-the-clock is revealed in Labor’s tender document for controversial road pricing. Tories branded it as “sinister,” and accused the government of being “at war with the motorist.” The document will also fuel fears of a mass expansion of Big Brother state and raise concerns about the security of detailed information being collected on millions of drivers.

In a surprise U-turn, Chancellor Alistair Darling announced during last month’s Budget that the government was pushing ahead with national road pricing — just one month after Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly appeared to shelve the idea. He announced that pilot projects would be launched next year and funding would be available to research the technology needed “to underpin national road pricing.” Labor’s Invitation to Tender Document reveals the extent to which it wants motorists monitored and recorded. Companies are being told to draw up plans for “time, distance, place” charging — known as TDP. This satellite system uses technology to track motorists every minute of the day. It communicates with “contact points” that push up the driver’s bill as they motor pass them. Trial schemes would see up to 500 spy stations installed in each pricing pilot area. Hundreds more “assurance objects” would be set up — contact points to track a car without increasing the charge. Scheme operators would then be able to produce itemized accounts of where each motorist has driven in twenty-four hours. The detailed bills could be submitted if a driver disputes the charges, but the tender document suggests the information may also be used for “analysis” of motorists’ movements.

The government has put no bar on how many departments or agencies would have access to this information, while data collection would be outsourced to third-party companies, called Road User Service Providers. Tory transport spokesman Theresa Villiers warned that despite Labor’s “appalling” record on data security, it was forging ahead with a scheme which would see personal information passed daily between multiple organizations. She said: “From ID cards, to microchips in wheelie bins, to clipboard-wielding council tax inspectors with the right to come into your home, Big Brother schemes have dominated this Government from day one. Having lost half the country’s personal data already, what makes ministers think that people will trust this Government to monitor the movements of every driver to within five seconds of accuracy? This sinister plan is proof that the Government is still at war with the motorist.”

National road pricing could see drivers paying up to £1.34 a mile during peak times. They would be charged on the distance and time of a journey as well as the size of car. Drivers themselves would also be put into one of thirty categories. The government has not revealed details, but charges may vary depending on whether you use the car to commute or go shopping. A record 1.8 million people last year signed a Downing Street petition in protest over national road pricing as motorists feel the squeeze of rising taxes and fuel costs. The government insists higher taxes will cut congestion and combat climate change, but the Tories believe that Labor’s eco-argument is a cover for a blatant tax grab on drivers. The Information Commissioner Richard Thomas has warned that Britain is sleepwalking into a “surveillance state” — fears highlighted last week when it emerged that a local council used anti-terror laws to track a family in a dispute over school catchment areas.