We could crawl

I had a letter recently from this young fellow, claiming to be my MP. Which was odd, as I’d understood that the job was held by this guy. It turns out that constituency boundaries are in the process of being redrawn, so that my ex-MP when Parliament is next dissolved will in effect be him rather than him – but until then he can hold his horses. (Opportunistic and misleading campaign literature, from a Liberal Democrat? Surely not!) Anyway, thanks to the people at TheyWorkForYou for sorting that one out, and when I say ‘people’ I actually mean Chris. Small world.

As it happens I also had a letter from my MP – the real one – the other day, complete with a copy of a letter from Hazel Blears, no less. Here’s what I’d written:

I am alarmed and disgusted to read of the latest proposal to expand the use of automated number-plate recognition (ANPR) systems on British roads. This is nothing other than an extension of intrusive surveillance for the benefit of the police. It is even being argued for in these terms: quoted in today’s Guardian, Robert Gifford of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety said, “One of the good things about ANPR is that people are often multiple offenders so it would provide useful intelligence,” adding that “expanding the use of technology for tracking the movements of cars could lead police to people who had committed other offences”. You’ll note that Mr Gifford made no attempt to justify this proposal in terms of benefit to road users, which is ostensibly his brief.The police forces of England and Wales are an institution like any other: they would rather have more power than less. However, the business of government is not to give the police (or any other institution) everything they ask for, but to stand up for the interests of the people of the country – including our interest in going about our daily business unmolested by intrusive and speculative surveillance. This proposal was not a manifesto pledge and runs counter to decades of Labour Party policy on surveillance and the police. It deserves to be thrown out. I trust you will oppose it to the best of your ability.

And here’s Ms Blears’ reply (addressed to my MP):

ANPR has been used by the Police Service for a number of years with the primary objective of denying criminals the use of the roads. It targets terrorism and other serious and organised crime, and volume crime such as burglary and vehicle crime. In addition, it is used to detect vehicle documentation offences such as uninsured driving and road tax evasion. It has been proved that many of those who are stopped for committing routine road traffic offences by the Police are themselves likely to have been involved in more serious offending.I am grateful to Mr Edwards for bringing these issues to the attention of the Home Office. Please let me assure you that this technology is being used to support record numbers of police on the street and is proving crucial in reducing crime. A great deal of care is being taken to ensure that its use of this technology [sic] is cognisant of both Human Rights and Data Protection legislation. ANPR is not a ‘Big Brother’ technology – it is designed to target those who choose to use our roads illegally and allows law-abiding citizens to go about their business uninterrupted.

The idea that an extension of intrusive surveillance for the benefit of the police might be, you know, a bad thing in some sense seems to have got lost in translation. Beyond that… well, I haven’t got the time or energy for a proper fisking now, but I’ll suggest one question: if ANPR systems are designed to make it possible to watch the entire population of road-users and target a sub-group which is defined and identified by the police, in what sense are they not a ‘Big Brother’ technology?


  1. Chris Lightfoot
    Posted 26 April 2006 at 23:53 | Permalink | Reply

    Ah, I wondered whether it was the same Phil Edwards!

    Changes to electoral boundaries are a constant pain in the arse in my day job — either I’m in the middle of updating our databases to deal with a change, or I’m worrying about how much work it’ll be next time I do — but for a (slightly technical) flavour of how irksome this is, see this or this

  2. Phil
    Posted 27 April 2006 at 10:50 | Permalink | Reply

    That reminds me of my day job! Take a look at this (particularly the third section).

  3. Alex
    Posted 28 April 2006 at 09:03 | Permalink | Reply

    I’m beginning to think we ought to launch a last-ditch effort to save the Safety Elephant. More worrying than John Reid, think HAZEL BLEARS as Home Secretary.

  4. Chris Lightfoot
    Posted 28 April 2006 at 15:24 | Permalink | Reply

    I tried to read your article — honestly I did — but my eyes started to glaze over when you mentioned WSDL and I didn’t really get past the first mention of the “semantic web”. I admit this is a personal weakness….

    On the subject of ANPR: well, I laughed out loud at, “I am grateful to Mr Edwards for bringing these issues to the attention of the Home Office” — are we supposed to believe she’d never heard of it before?

    Anyway, of course she wouldn’t admit that ANPR is a “Big Brother” technology. Remember: they’re good people — they say so themselves.

  5. Phil
    Posted 29 April 2006 at 14:32 | Permalink | Reply

    You’re a wuss, Lightfoot, what are you? You’re not the first person to stall at the WSDL paragraph. I think there’s something a bit duplicitous about it. The guy assembles this great car-crash of acronyms, as if to say “look at this tottering tower of balderdash”, but he’s only really talking to people who already know and understand the field – everyone else will take one look at it and think “aargh, a tottering tower of balderdash, get it away from me!”

    Have you tried skipping to part 3? (he added doggedly). It’s an outsider’s view – and probably a rather reductive one – of a field you know a lot better than I do.

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