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UK biometrics commissioner warns license plate recognition could erode public trust in surveillance

UK biometrics commissioner warns license plate recognition could erode public trust in surveillance

Developments in license plate recognition and the technology’s spread could undermine the public’s trust in the system and surveillance more broadly, warns the UK’s Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner. Stronger and simpler legislation around surveillance could counterbalance this.

A speech to the National ANPR Conference 2021 by the commissioner, Fraser Sampson, has just been published. It contains his analysis of the current use of surveillance technologies and predictions for their future direction. ANPR, or automatic number plate recognition, is the term used in the UK and Ireland for license plate recognition.

Sampson sees ANPR as part of critical national infrastructure – and critical policing infrastructure – for its significance to crime fighting and counter-terrorism. “What would happen if the system itself was unavailable to the police for 7 hours or even 7 minutes? It would be like switching off the internet. It wouldn’t just be an unlikely event — it would be unthinkable,” Sampson told the sector.

Critical infrastructure, he reasons, should be backed by clear and accessible legislations that would allow the public to understand the implementation of the technology. This would also help cement trust in ANPR, a component of a growing reach by surveillance systems.

“ANPR is a well-established form of surveillance. The fact that it’s established is important because people have grown up with it and to an extent have so far – generally — trusted its use, or at least haven’t been as worried about its misuse as some newer surveillance capability,” said Sampson.

Capability and mission creep

This acceptance is based on a previously-understood level of capabilities from ANPR cameras – that they could read license plates. Sampson described the advances in technology meaning the cameras can now capture other data and the systems monitor the “behavior, associations, networks and habits – not just of the driver but occupants.”

Added to the technological capability creep for what cameras can do is the legal issue of permissions that any given, specifically-installed camera was initially granted. Sampson quoted the most recent Surveillance Camera Code that stipulates a camera in a public place can only be used for its original purpose and that “‘it should not be used for other purposes that would not have justified its establishment in the first place.’ That’s an interesting test, partly because people’s attitudes and awareness have changed.”

ANPR that exceeds public expectation and possibly acceptance in terms of both its capabilities and deployment could make people more wary of the technology. “Will people still be as accepting of ANPR once it can recognize the occupants of a moving vehicle, identifying their children, when and where they got their flu jabs, their passport and if they’ve paid their tax bill?” asked Sampson.

How context affects understanding of surveillance proportionality

To strengthen his case, the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner uses examples of technology suppliers and how the proportionality of camera use can shift given prevailing circumstances. He cites the example of Hikvision, whose CCTV cameras sold in the UK routinely have ANPR pre-installed. This may seem like a useful tool, but

given the firm’s alleged involvement of invasive biometric surveillance in Xinjiang, Sampson asks how comfortable would the police be in collaborating with such a company, how would people feel about money raised from taxes going to them?

Proportionality of surveillance has shifted even during COVID-19, explained Sampson: “When stacked up against the global threat of a pandemic, “local law enforcement tactics” can suddenly become ‘proportionate’ in a way previously only seen in high harm criminality such as terrorism or even national security.”

Could the threat of climate change mean states could use ANPR to enforce low emission zones, whatever the impact on the privacy of individual citizens? Ultimately Sampson is positive about the developments in biometrics and surveillance in aiding preparation and response to global crises, but this will come down to how they are handled.

Permissibility and clarity vs the withdrawal of support

As surveillance increases along with the quantities of data held on individuals, permissibility of the technology will become key and need legal clarification: “The law should reflect the importance of this part of our Critical National Infrastructure. In the area of biometrics and surveillance the government is committed to a strong legal framework and simplification. This area needs both strengthening and simplifying.”

Sampson concluded with the warning that the biggest risk to critical license plate recognition is not technological or legal, but societal – the potential withdrawal of support. People may be getting more used to surveillance in some ways and even installing their own, “but when it’s done by the state with all its apparatus of enforcement some feel wide-scale surveillance is becoming highly questionable, especially as the Government doesn’t yet follow its own Surveillance Camera Code.”

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