A state for snoopers

Official assurances that our privacy will be protected yet again seem false

If there is one group of people you don't want to piss off, it's motorists. Tony Blair found this out last year when 1.7 million people used the 10 Downing Street petition website to protest against the government's road-pricing scheme, plans that have since been dropped.

In his response to the petition, he reassured people that "any technology used would have to give definite guarantees about privacy being protected".

So it may have come as a surprise to some when news of the police's network of Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras hit the headlines in mid-September. The Association of Chief Police Officers' plan to "deny criminals the road" by establishing total surveillance capabilities over our highways has in fact been on the table since 2005.

Since then, roadside CCTV cameras have gradually been converted to recognise and log automatically the number plates of the cars that drive past them, pinpointing the location of vehicles, and their motorists, to a precise time and place.

The Guardian has now revealed that when the network becomes fully operational - which could be as soon as within the next four months - the National ANPR database in Hendon, north London, will store up to 50 million licence plate readings a day. The data, which will be stored for five years, will allow police to reconstruct in perfect detail the journeys of millions of innocent motorists.

The campaigning group Privacy International has lodged an official complaint about the scheme with the Information Commissioner's Office, a complaint the office is reported to be "taking seriously". But those citizens waiting for the notoriously toothless ICO to defend their right to privacy are likely to find themselves twiddling their thumbs for a very long time.

At no point were the police plans the subject of parliamentary debate. This is even though the Chief Surveillance Commissioner, Sir Christopher Rose, has raised the issue of ANPR cameras repeatedly in his annual reports. Previous surveillance commissioners had concluded that use of ANPR data to keep general watch on the roads was unlikely to be permitted under the current legislation that governs surveillance, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.

Networked digital technology has made effortless mass surveillance of the type hinted at by the police's ANPR network a real possibility. The power it grants the state over us is unprecedented - it challenges the democratic fabric of our society. And yet those who represent our voice have had no say in the way such technology has been deployed.

The role of parliament has undoubtedly been sidelined under Labour. But although Gordon Brown recognised this when he entered No 10 last year, nothing seems to have changed.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website openDemocracy.net, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The crash of 2008