Tuesday, November 22, 2005

UK plans "24x7 vehicle movement database"

A strategy document written by Britain's Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and obtained by the Sunday Times (see article online) indicates that the UK will soon have a system in place that makes it possible to monitor the movement of every car on the road around the clock. (See also the article in The Register).

Cameras are to be installed "every 400 yards on motorways, as well as at supermarkets, petrol stations and in town centres". The system will work by combining CCTV cameras with automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) software and linking it to existing databases not only on the police national computer, but also to the DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency) database that carries information about tax and insurance status. It is planned to extend that to a database that lists vehicles without a valid MOT certificate.

Given that details of any vehicle passing a camera will be stored in a database for at least two years — even if the owner has not committed an offence — this will indeed create a mobility profile for every driver in the United Kingdom. It seems noteworthy that the system will largely come about through the linking of existing systems such as speed cameras, ANPR software, and online-accessible databases. However, this demonstrates how through the linking of existing systems a new quality of data can be obtained.

It is further planned that officers investigating crimes will be able to access the information from the new system from computers anywhere in the UK, although they will require clearance from senior managers. How effectively such a system can be used was demonstrated last Friday in the case of the shooting of a woman policy officer in Bradford: within minutes of the incident, a combination of a network of CCTV cameras and ANPR software was used to track the suspected getaway car (see BBC report and the discussion on slashdot).

As a West Yorkshire Police spokeswoman describes it: "When a car is entered on the system it will 'ping' whenever it passes one of our cameras, which makes it a lot easier to track than waiting for a patrol car to spot it." The local police chief described the system upon introduction last May as the "best investigative tool we have had since the introduction of DNA analysis."

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