U.K. will regulate license number plate recognition cameras more tightly

Published 6 July 2010

There are 4,000 automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras in the United Kingdom, logging more than 10 million vehicles every day; since the launch of the ANPR network in 2006, the government has accumulated 7.6 billion images; these images include details of number plates and the date, time, and place of capture — and, often, the picture of the driver and passengers; the Home Secretary has called for tighter regulation of the ANPRs, and also for limiting access to the image database; ministers will consider how long these records can be held (the current limit is two years); seventy-two ANPR cameras in Birmingham will soon be removed after it emerged that their installation, in areas with large Muslim populations, had been funded through a Home Office counter-terrorism fund

Plate readers return an image, and frequently, variants on the interpretation of the characters // Source: freedomsphoenix.com

Three weeks ago we wrote that license-plate readers are becoming popular with police departments. Automatic license-plate readers enable police rapidly to verify that passing motorists are not behind the wheel of a stolen vehicle or do not have outstanding warrants. We noted that opponents of excessive government intrusion warn the readers will allow law enforcement to spy on innocent people by tracking their whereabouts for no reason (“License-plate readers help police, alarm privacy advocates,” 15 June 2010 HSNW). The new U.K. government decided to do something about it: Police cameras that record motorists’ movements must be more tightly regulated, Home Secretary Theresa May has ordered.

The 4,000-strong automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) network logs more than 10 million vehicles every day. The BBC reports that the government is to look at limiting access to the database of 7.6 billion images, details of number plates and the date, time, and place of capture.

The cameras capture the front of cars and photographs can include images of the driver and any passengers. Ministers will consider how long these records can be held. The current limit is two years.

May says she wants proper accountability and safeguards in the use of this database.


It comes as a decision was taken to remove seventy-two ANPR cameras in Birmingham after it emerged their installation, in areas with large Muslim populations, had been funded through a Home Office counter-terrorism fund.

Home Office minister James Brokenshire told the Guardian the national changes were necessary for public confidence. “Both CCTV and ANPR can be essential tools in combating crime but the growth in their use has been outside of a suitable governance regime,” he said. “To ensure that these important technologies continue to command the support and confidence of the public and are used effectively, we believe that further regulation is required. We are examining a number of options and will also be considering the work of the interim CCTV regulator, who is due to report to ministers shortly.”

The government is also looking at introducing a lawful right for police forces to log the information and greater transparency over where the cameras are.

The system was rolled out in 2006 to track uninsured drivers and stolen cars.

The cameras work by scanning number plates and checking them against information stored in various databases to identify vehicles of interest to the police. An ANPR camera can read a number plate every second.

Civil liberties group Big Brother Watch branded the network “an unnecessary and indiscriminate invasion of privacy.” Campaign director Dylan Sharpe said the review was “long overdue”.

ANPR gives the state the ability to track every car journey we make. It is about time that some restrictions were placed on the use of this intrusive technology.”

The BBC notes that the organization was founded by the Taxpayers’ Alliance pressure group, which lobbies for lower taxes and greater government efficiency.

Police say use of the cameras has led to the arrest of burglars, robbers and drug dealers, among others, and that they target criminals and not innocent law-abiding motorists.