Councils and police acting like 'uncontrolled SPIES', warns watchdog

Councils and police are acting like ‘uncontrolled SPIES’ with surveillance technology as sophisticated as MI5 but no regulation, warns Government watchdog

  • Surveillance camera commissioner Tony Porter raised doubts about use of ANPR
  • Said the system was so advance it was like what spies would use on their targets
  • But warned regulator was ‘toothless’ to tackle improper usage of the system  

Automatic Number Plate Recognition cameras are the equivalent of being traced by MI5, the government watchdog warned today.

Surveillance camera commissioner Tony Porter claimed police and councils can act like spies let off the leash due to the widespread technology.

He said the ANPR system, facial recognition and sensors were so advanced it was like what spooks use to target suspects. 

But he warned there was no statutory oversight for ANPR, unlike the close regulation of the security services’ methods.

Surveillance camera commissioner Tony Porter claimed police and councils can act like spies let off the leash due to the widespread technology

Mr Porter, who is in his last month in the role, admitted there were huge benefits to the cameras – such as finding missing children or snaring criminals.

But he cautioned there were limited restrictions on councils and police using the technology and watchdogs had ‘no teeth’ to fight back.

He told the Telegraph: ‘Because of technological advances and the interconnectivity of these technologies with facial recognition and sensors, the ability of the state through overt technology to track its citizens is now as powerful as that provided by covert techniques.

‘To address all of those issues in a piecemeal fashion does a disservice to the country and fails to recognise the serious impact of the technology.

‘The totality of state surveillance needs to be looked at and a stronger, principle-driven code needs to be introduced that provides for sanctions and the ability for the public to be confident this is being dealt with properly.’

Mr Porter said the country’s ANPR was now one of the ‘largest non-military databases’ in Western Europe with 60billion vehicle registrations recorded each year.

Last month fears Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford provoked concern when he warned police could use ANPR to catch people from UK coronavirus hotspots who illegally enter the country.

Mr Drakeford told BBC Breakfast: ‘I believe the police will have a range of techniques that they will be able to use.

‘Number plates are one of the ways in which they are able to identify cars that are travelling long distances, but that won’t be the only way.

‘They will have long-practice techniques developed earlier in the year, and they will apply those again over the weeks to come.’

He said the ANPR system, facial recognition and sensors were so advanced it was like what spooks use to target suspects. Pictured is a stock photo of ANPR cameras 

The Police Federation of England and Wales said ‘policing in Wales is already over-stretched due to the pandemic’ and the new measures would add ‘yet another level of complexity to policing’.

In May, details of 8.6 million car journeys were accidentally exposed on the internet after a data breach from part of Britain’s ANPR network.

The database was left unprotected and accessible without a password – potentially allowing anyone to access it and look up individual vehicle movements.

Silkie Carlo, a director of Big Brother Watch, called the vehicle movement blunder an ‘astronomical data breach that has jeopardised the privacy and security of many thousands of people’.

She said: ‘The incompetent management of this appalling mass surveillance system means (its administrators) will have no idea who has had access to the data, when, how, why or what they might do with it.

‘Detailed journey records of thousands of people could be exploited by criminals and pose a particular risk in stalking and harassment contexts.

‘Councils shouldn’t be conducting this mass-scale snooping at all, let alone leaking millions of sensitive records on the internet.

‘ANPR remains dangerously unregulated and deserves serious parliamentary attention.’ 

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