Britain is to become the first country in the world where the movements of all vehicles on the roads are recorded. A new national surveillance system will hold the records for at least two years.
The network will incorporate thousands of existing CCTV cameras which are being converted to read number plates automatically night and day to provide 24/7 coverage of all motorways and main roads, as well as towns, cities, ports and petrol-station forecourts.
By next March a central database installed alongside the Police National Computer in Hendon, north London, will store the details of 35 million number-plate "reads" per day. These will include time, date and precise location, with camera sites monitored by global positioning satellites.
Already there are plans to extend the database by increasing the storage period to five years and by linking thousands of additional cameras so that details of up to 100 million number plates can be fed each day into the central databank.
Chief constables are also on the verge of brokering agreements with the Highways Agency, supermarkets and petrol station owners to incorporate their own CCTV cameras into the network. In addition to cross-checking each number plate against stolen and suspect vehicles held on the Police National Computer, the national data centre will also check whether each vehicle is lawfully licensed, insured and has a valid MoT test certificate.
"Every time you make a car journey already, you'll be on CCTV somewhere. The difference is that, in future, the car's index plates will be read as well," said Frank Whiteley, Chief Constable of Hertfordshire and chairman of the ACPO [Association of Chief Police Officers] steering committee on automatic number plate recognition (ANPR).
"What the data centre should be able to tell you is where a vehicle was in the past and where it is now, whether it was or wasn't at a particular location, and the routes taken to and from those crime scenes. Particularly important are associated vehicles," Mr Whiteley said.
The term "associated vehicles" means analysing convoys of cars, vans or trucks to see who is driving alongside a vehicle that is already known to be of interest to the police. Criminals, for instance, will drive somewhere in a lawful vehicle, steal a car and then drive back in convoy to commit further crimes "You're not necessarily interested in the stolen vehicle. You're interested in what's moving with the stolen vehicle," Mr Whiteley explained.
The British government is preparing to test new high-tech license plates containing microchips capable of transmitting unique vehicle identification numbers and other data to readers more than 300 feet away.
Officials in the United States say they'll be closely watching the British trial as they contemplate initiating their own tests of the plates, which incorporate radio frequency identification, or RFID, tags to make vehicles electronically trackable.
"We definitely have an interest in testing an RFID-tagged license plate," said Jerry Dike, chairman of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators and director of the Vehicle Titles and Registration Division of the Texas Department of Transportation.
Active RFID is already enjoying limited use on U.S. roadways. Under a new program, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is issuing RFID tags to foreign freight and passenger vehicles as they enter the country.
Again, the objection seems to be efficiency of the system. Anything this system can do, an individual cop can do: a cop can read your license plate in plain sight, a cop can run the tags to make sure the car isn't stolen, the cop can follow you, the cop can remember that he saw your car at this intersection yesterday, etc. If a cop can do it, then it was never a privacy interest you had to begin with. The objection is that it is an efficient system with better ability to read your plates and remember locations. The suggestions that this information is harvested for some other purpose is speculative only in the article.
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