Ducks overlooking outside scenery on bridge.

Automatic numberplate recognition: is it legal?

02 August 2011. Published by Keith Mathieson, Partner

A report in the Guardian last week reminds readers of the strong likelihood that local police forces have tracked their movements with the use of automatic numberplate recognition (ANPR).

According to the article, around 14.5 million numberplate reads (yes, 14.5 million!) are generated every day in the United Kingdom.  They are then stored on servers adjoining the police national computer in Hendon, north London.  Each record of a car's movements will be stored for two years - or five years if connected to a crime. The movements are detected by a combination of 5,000 unmarked roadside cameras (not to be confused with the marked yellow boxes containing speed cameras) and mobile cameras inside patrol vehicles.

ANPR helps police forces to tackle crime by enabling it, among other things, to track down uninsured and disqualified drivers and those whose cars may have been used for crime.  But the system has the potential to cause unwarranted infringements of personal privacy where, for example, the movements of innocent car owners are retained for no good reason or, through laxity or error, car owners are wrongly 'hotlisted' as deserving police attention.

The Guardian article describes the ANPR system in operation in Royston, Hertfordshire, a relatively crime-free spot where ANPR has nonetheless been installed on every road in and out of the town.  The article notes that the Royston scheme has been the subject of complaints to the Information Commissioner's Office by the campaign groups No CCTV, Privacy International and Big Brother Watch.

In its 2005-2006 report the Chief Surveillance Commissioner expressed concerns that existing legislation did not adequately cater for ANPR, which, he suggested, might in some cases amount to covert surveillance under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.  The Government is intending to regulate CCTV and ANPR as part of the reforms to be introduced by the Protection of Freedoms Bill.  A previous post on this blog described the provisions of that bill.

See further chapter 7 of The Privacy Law Handbook

A report in the Guardian last week