Vehicle Tracking in the UK

Universal automobile surveillance is coming:

Britain is to become the first country in the world where the movements of all vehicles on the roads are recorded. A new national surveillance system will hold the records for at least two years.

Using a network of cameras that can automatically read every passing number plate, the plan is to build a huge database of vehicle movements so that the police and security services can analyse any journey a driver has made over several years.

The network will incorporate thousands of existing CCTV cameras which are being converted to read number plates automatically night and day to provide 24/7 coverage of all motorways and main roads, as well as towns, cities, ports and petrol-station forecourts.

By next March a central database installed alongside the Police National Computer in Hendon, north London, will store the details of 35 million number-plate "reads" per day. These will include time, date and precise location, with camera sites monitored by global positioning satellites.

As The Independent opines, this is only the beginning:

The new national surveillance network for tracking car journeys, which has taken more than 25 years to develop, is only the beginning of plans to monitor the movements of all British citizens. The Home Office Scientific Development Branch in Hertfordshire is already working on ways of automatically recognising human faces by computer, which many people would see as truly introducing the prospect of Orwellian street surveillance, where our every move is recorded and stored by machines.

Although the problems of facial recognition by computer are far more formidable than for car number plates, experts believe it is only a matter of time before machines can reliably pull a face out of a crowd of moving people.

If the police and security services can show that a national surveillance operation based on recording car movements can protect the public against criminals and terrorists, there will be a strong political will to do the same with street cameras designed to monitor the flow of human traffic.

I've already written about the security risks of what I call "wholesale surveillance." Once this information is collected, it will be misused, lost, and stolen. It will be filled with errors. The problems and insecurities that come from living in a surveillance society more than outweigh any crimefighting (and terrorist-fighting) advantages.

Posted on December 22, 2005 at 2:41 PM • 59 Comments

Comments

richDecember 22, 2005 3:27 PM

The British have had 60 years of municipal socialism - the number of Brits who would find anything wrong with this is vanishingly small. A surprising number will say, "if you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear"; six decades of socialism has made the average Brit feel very happy the government is keeping an eye on them.

Also, if you think Bush is a dictator, look at Tony Blair, who does anything he wants via a kitchen cabinet of unelected cronies.

Alan De SmetDecember 22, 2005 3:36 PM

"...camera sites monitored by global positioning satellites."

Just in case the camera goes for a walk? For what they're describing, I would have expected a permenant installation. Come to think of it, how do GPS satellites "monitor" anything? They're a one way broadcast.

AnonymousDecember 22, 2005 3:44 PM

@rich

Unelected? Aren't all ministers also MPs? The PM also faces the possibility of no-confidence votes. And though not a direct influence on his power, the PM pretty much has to answer face-to-face to all of the House of Commons, including any critics and the opposition, on a regular basis.

Davi OttenheimerDecember 22, 2005 3:47 PM

Wow. 35 million reads per day...with the ability to monitor movements over several years.

Why does this remind me of CRM projects (that promise the world in analytics but usually just deliver a messy and insecure database)?

Meanwhile, US Customs just announced that they have expanded their electronic vehicle tracking system to the first reader on the southern border:

http://davi.ottenheimer.com/blog/?p=141

"The automated manifest provides CBP officers with cargo information prior to a shipment arriving at the gate. Comprehensive data such as information on the driver and passengers; a description of the conveyance and any applicable equipment like a trailer; and details regarding the shipment are included."

BenDecember 22, 2005 4:31 PM

I see this as potentially being very dangerous beyond the reasons listed.

It is very easy to duplicate license plates, so one could hide their own actions or falsify the record of another individual without a whole lot of effort.

Boris MagocsiDecember 22, 2005 4:39 PM

I am curious to see what the American right wing makes of this, especially after the domestic suveillance debacle.

erasmusDecember 22, 2005 4:44 PM

@Ben - precisely - though it seems much easier to steal car licence plates than get new ones made.

@rich - some of us still object. (And some might object to being called socialist!)

There is a deep irony to this. The day after I get a fine in the post for a minor traffic offence* issued from a CCTV camera operator, a friend gets hit over the head with an iron bar just 30 yards away. Needless to say, the CCTV operators never saw the mugging.

*stopping to let someone out of the car

fatmanDecember 22, 2005 5:05 PM

@rich

"The British have had 60 years of municipal socialism" - I would suggest that the Thatcher and Major years in office hardly count as 'socialism' - in fact, quite the opposite.

The current Labour party is about as far away from socialism as one can get without being called Tory. There is no socialist alternative in Britain anymore unfortunately.

The fact that number plates can be forged suggests that the scheme could be unworkable. In terms of using this for the prevention or detection or proof of crime, how does a lawyer in court prove that a specific person was driving the car? All that can be seen is the number plate and this may not be the 'true' number plate of the car.

This will become primarily another revenue stream IMHO, giving police the ability to track time between two cameras, extrapolate the speed of the car and if greater than the speed limit on that particular stretch of road, send out an automatic speeding ticket.

This has nothing to do with security and crime prevention/detection and everything to do with generating revenue for the Exchequer.

In addition it will be interesting to see how the UK FOI (Freedom of Information Act) applies to the data held by this survelliance system. For example, can I request all the data held about my car's movements for the last three months? Of course not, it will be exempt, like data on the PNC (Police National Computer.)

BenDecember 22, 2005 5:08 PM

@ erasmus

It is true that it would be easier to steal license plates, but then the victim is aware of what is happening.

Stealing license plates would also probably be a bad idea since it wouldn't be too hard to track down the culprit with this system

Glauber RibeiroDecember 22, 2005 5:17 PM

How about some kind of reflective paint or cover that makes it hard for the camera to read the plate while still allowing humans to read it? I've seen such things advertised, but don't know how well they work.

Glauber RibeiroDecember 22, 2005 5:18 PM

The thing is, optical character recognition of photographed license plates is error-prone. How long until this kind of tracking is done much more efficiently, through RFID chips implanted in the car?

AnonymousDecember 22, 2005 5:20 PM

wonder how long before someone figures out how to confuse the system with black electricians tape, or something similar.

AnonymousDecember 22, 2005 5:21 PM

Just one word change, Glauber:

The thing is, optical character recognition of photographed license plates is error-prone. How long until this kind of tracking is done much more efficiently, through RFID chips implanted in the ear?

another_bruceDecember 22, 2005 5:56 PM

i'm 50 y.o. and i'll be dead before this comes to where i live in langlois, oregon.
yet my state formed a special commission to investigate a new tax based on miles driven by oregonians, which would involve a gps in every carriage which could tell when we left an oregon motorway and entered california. obviously, tourists from other states would be exempt. the way to bring in everyone is.....
pay at the pump! pay at the pump! pay at the pump! (also true for carriage insurance, but the insurance industry is against that). the necessity for installing gps suggests to me that the revenue reason may be pretextual.
when i pull my black stetson down over my eyes prior to criminal activity, all your surveillance cam will see is a big ugly guy in a cowboy hat. we got lots of those up here, trust me on that.

Roy OwensDecember 22, 2005 6:32 PM

They no doubt will try facial recognition, spending a fortune on it, which will make a fortune for the vendors pimping the system. The users will find it a total bust, since the vast preponderance of positives will be false, so that anyone acting on a 'hit' will end up almost certainly with egg-on-face.

After the system proves a total failure, the government will quietly try to 'repurpose' what they paid for so as to get some use out of it. Eventually the whole thing will be quietly retired.

And few years later, a new crop of idiots-in-charge will fall prey to the next crop of vendor pimps.

RogerDecember 22, 2005 7:03 PM

"Although the problems of facial recognition by computer are far more formidable than for car number plates, experts believe it is only a matter of time before machines can reliably pull a face out of a crowd of moving people."

I am a big skeptic of the "track everyone by their face" scenario. They've been saying it's only a matter of time for the last 20 years. In that time, they've managed to improve the equal error rates by a factor of about 2 ~ 3. To get it to the stage of being useful for Big Brother style universal surveillance, they need to improve it by at least 7, maybe 8, orders of magnitude. So at the current rate of progress, it should be ready in approximately three to five centuries, give or take a few lifetimes. In the unlikely event I'm still around when that happens, I expect to see a revival of big floppy hats.

The problem is much more worrisome with essentially machine-readable data such as cellphones, RFID, or license plates. But even with license plates, one has to wonder what the error rates are like. They are proposing to store 35 million "reads" per day now and expand to 100 million within a year; clearly this is rather unlikely to include photographs of useful resolution, so each "read" will be just something like time stamp, camera ID, and decoded license number. In that case if the decoded number is incorrect, there will be very little to go back on.

"The plan beyond March 2006 - when the national data centre goes live - is to expand the capacity of the system to log the time, date and whereabouts of up to 100 million number plates a day."

And at 37 BILLION reads per annum, even a false acceptance error rate of 1 in a million will be producing tens of thousands of false positives per annum. Some of them will be filtered out by deducing that two reads two hours apart in, say, Aberdeen and Truro, cannot both be right, and if another read on the same day was in Peterhead then Truro is probably the wrong one. But what if had been Glasgow instead of Truro? Now the system is claiming that you have driven at a reckless but perfectly feasible speed. And what if the dirty smudge on some fellow's license plate in Truro caused him to be "read" as you not once but several times, now were you in Scotland or Cornwall? Worse, having seen the mediocre results usually achieved by automated image processing software, I very much doubt that the actual error rates will be as good as 1 in a million. Let the camera lenses get good and dirty, and it will probably be more like 1 in 10,000. And will the lenses get dirty?

"We also talking to the commercial sector about their sites, particular garage forecourts ... Supermarkets are soon to agree a deal that will lead to all cars entering their garage forecourts having details of their number plates sent to Hendon. In return, the retailers will receive warning information about those drivers most likely to "bilk" - drive off without paying their bill."

I don't know what is scariest about this. The fact that they seriously want parts of an allegedly counter-terrorist infrastructure to be operated by commercial interests with very little interest in its accuracy and maintenance (have you ever seen the appalling bad CCTV footage produced in garage forecourts?!), or that the UK government is now going to set itself up as ... what, exactly? A credit reporting agency? (How are they going to do that?) Or are they talking about releasing criminal records to commercial entities?!?

@Ben:
"It is very easy to duplicate license plates, so one could hide their own actions or falsify the record of another individual without a whole lot of effort."

Don't forget, as Bruce posted a couple of months ago, the British government is also planning to put RFID in license plates. Every passing police car with an automated license plate reader (these are already on the roads, and have already lead to arrests) will instantly notice if your plate and RFID chip give inconsistent results.

SupachupaDecember 22, 2005 7:13 PM

Here's an idea:
Those who don't want to put up with this need to unite. If petitioning doesn't work to stop this, then if everyone puts identical false license plates (perhaps GO1984 for the number) on their cars as a protest, it would render the system useless.. or at least less useful.

Finally, we can protest by not using cars. The railway system in the UK is awesome. Just think of all those pissed off oil execs telling Blair to do something.

RogerDecember 22, 2005 7:18 PM

@Alan de Smet:
"Just in case the camera goes for a walk? For what they're describing, I would have expected a permenant installation. "

It is a mixture. They will have -- sorry, already have -- fixed cameras at "strategic locations" such as petrol stations and motorway entrances, plus mobile cameras in some percentage of police cars. They are also looking at retrofitting the image recognition software to the CCTV installations which many UK towns have in high crime areas. Presumably, the GPS is for the mobile units.

This presents an interesting unexpected feature: the log of "reads" performed by these mobile units will not only show that car X was at location Y at time T, it will also give a detailed plot of the movements of the police car, BUT only for the times when it was passing other cars.

ruidhDecember 22, 2005 8:49 PM

I'm wondering, though, if this kind of surveilance would be allowed in the US under current law. The trend in SCOTUS rulings is that there is no expectation of privacy in public. I don;t think current law would object to the police recording the license plate numbers of every vehicle passing a certain corner.

TimDecember 22, 2005 8:54 PM

Bruce--

I agree with you for now, that wholesale surveilance is a bad thing.

I am curious about two things:
1. is there a set of conditions whereby you would be ok with wholesale surveilance? What are they?

2. What is your method of evaluation? is it legal? Constitutional? Economic?

2a. Have you read Posner's "Catastrophe," and if so, what do you think of his approach and his conclusions?

tim

GeoffDecember 22, 2005 9:17 PM

Police will use this to track criminal behaviour; yet criminals will often use stolen cars to travel. Never mind, our doughty police are one step ahead:

"Particularly important are associated vehicles," Mr Whiteley said.

The term "associated vehicles" means analysing convoys of cars, vans or trucks to see who is driving alongside a vehicle that is already known to be of interest to the police. Criminals, for instance, will drive somewhere in a lawful vehicle, steal a car and then drive back in convoy to commit further crimes "You're not necessarily interested in the stolen vehicle. You're interested in what's moving with the stolen vehicle," Mr Whiteley explained."

(Frank Whiteley, Chief Constable of Hertfordshire).

So when this goes in, criminals will drive somewhere in a lawful vehicle, steal a car and then drive back via different routes to commit further crimes.

So if I want to commit a crime by car, I change my behaviour slightly - I travel by bus to steal a car, or I use black tape to change the numberplate, or I just change the plates. Whereas if I am a law-abiding citizen, I am now watched wherever I go.

This is grubby and Orwellian.

jammitDecember 22, 2005 10:47 PM

That EMP generator I'm going to put in my truck is really going to mess up my FM radio.
Almost every traffic camera is a sensitive black and white camera. Most have an IR filter to prevent reflected IR from blinding them. Even if you flood your plate with enough IR light to flood even those cameras, they will most likely auto white level so all they'll see is your plate floating in black space. My idea is to coat your plate in a material that is clear to us but opaque to IR. You then paint on top of that a paint that's clear to us but reflects IR to show a different number. By illuminating the plate (not blindingly flooding) with IR, the camera should pick up the fake number.
Personally I have no idea how this massive collection of data and keeping it for two years is going to stop anything. I don't see any criminals re-using the same car over and over for many years to commit their crimes. I also don't see how it will catch terrorists, unless they are required to put that down as an occupation on their drivers license.

RogerDecember 22, 2005 11:02 PM

@Arif Khan:
"A prototype of "Face recognition technology" already exists."
Yes, and has done for a long time, but it's just a toy, for serious purposes it is worthless junk. I am aware of casinos trying to install something similar, ummm, ages ago, late 80's if I recall correctly, to spot banned card sharks. But it worked badly then and it is only marginally better now.

Manufacturers have made various (often completely dishonest) claims for reliability, but when independently tested under practical field conditions [1], the equal error rates (i.e. chance it says you're a known criminal, when you're not, AND chance it lets a known criminal get past undetected) are both on the order of 40 ~ 50%. When the sensitivity is tuned to the point where it only does a few percent of false acceptances (false accusations of being a wanted criminal!), the false rejection rate is so high it doesn't detect any real criminals at all. In other words, it's utterly, utterly useless for security applications.

The reason it may be somewhat usable in your photo album application is firstly that the pictures are taken under close to ideal conditions [2], secondly that the learning set you are matching against is tiny compared to the millions in law enforcement databases, thirdly the number of samples to try against is a few hundred photos instead of 35 million car drivers per day, and lastly in the photo album application it doesn't really matter if it gets a lot of them wrong.

____
1. Note, by the way, that these "practical field conditions" just mean the subject moving his head, other people in the field of view, variable lighting etc; we're not going so far as disguises here. Once disguises are allowed, the ability of these systems to detect a known face is 0.
2. For example, all the demonstrations they show have a full or nearly full frontal face shot with uniform lighting and no more than three faces in the picture. Only two had spectacles (clear, thin framed), no sunglasses, and the only example of headdress was fair face framed (not covered) with a black hat tilted sharply backward, shown against a dark background.

Antonio VarniDecember 22, 2005 11:08 PM

I think that shortcuts could be taken to catapult existing (or near future) biometric technologies to the point where they could literally identify most people driving in their cards using facial recognition via cameras.

All biometric systems I've heard about have some accuracy rate. They also have a (usually tunable) false positive/negative rate.

It's important to make the distinction between a biometric device identifying someone out of the blue, versus comparing (or authenticating) their biometric data to a short list of likely targets.

If we can get facial biometric data for everyone (DMV photo?) - and we can compile a list of likely drivers in a given vehicle (based on registration info, declared other drivers on insurance info, family members, relatives, etc) - then we should be able to use those cameras to _authenticate_ a car's occupants with a short list of possible identities - which is a much easier task for biometric technologies.

Once we throw those 'easy' targets out, we can focus on identifying any 'unknowns' left. Once an 'unknown' is identified, they're associated with that car and next time the scan is easier.

My point is - we can't just state that technology isn't at the point yet where it can identify a person out of a crowd with a reasonable level of accuracy. I think there are shortcuts that can be taken to compensate.

We're loosing our privacy every day, and the common person doesn't even understand the level of detail governments/corporations have on us already.

worriedDecember 23, 2005 3:10 AM

Italy too is deploying a similar system right now.
They say it will be used for issuing speeding tickets (by measuring avarage speed between two gates), but they don't say what they'll do with the data (Will they store it in a database? For how long?) and what else it will be used for.
At least the british government is open about it: they will use it for mass surveillance.
The italian government instead is trying to mislead the public. Probably because the british are already used to mass surveillance and the italian are not.

P.S. I know from good sources, that the italian system *was* designed with surveillance in mind.

Dan MullineuxDecember 23, 2005 3:47 AM

Wow, what a ridiculous idea. Talk about security theatre. Human identity, although not tricky to steel convincingly, wiht this system steeling a cars identity, is even easier, (with a blob of paint).

This will do sfa to increase security, and as bruce suggests, just another opportunity to reduce it!

erasmusDecember 23, 2005 5:37 AM

These systems are "reliable" enough to be used for congestion charging systems and speeding tickets. Its being mooted to change the annual vehicle tax to a pay-as-you-go system based on this (though the German Toll Collect system is an utter disaster)

"People who do not break the law have nothing to fear from the system" is a common official statement.

@Ben - the slow introduction of these ANPR systems has *already* created an industry in forged & stolen plates here. In response, the UK govt started a licensing system for the small companies that create the plates (we do not get issued plates from the State here, tax info is displayed on a separate windscreen disc). In turn, an underground number plate industry has developed...
An alternative is for criminals to register vehicles to "false" addresses from where they can't be traced.

@Glauber - various folks have tried using different materials to make it hard to read plates from a photo - they are basically snake oil. Some have experiemented to find a way round this - but short of going >175mph or pulling a wheelie on a bike it seems they can trace you most ways.

from_the_UKDecember 23, 2005 5:52 AM

> The railway system in the UK is awesome

and more and more trains have CCTV in the carriages, directed at the people sitting.

The first time I saw this I went to complain to the company's desk in the station. The two things I got of the girl there were an astonished "but it's for your security" and "write to the head office".
Needless to say, she hadn't any idea of the retention rules, or why this had any kind of relevance...

David HarmonDecember 23, 2005 7:32 AM

As far as "contagion" to the US, the ShrubCo domination of the US is currently strong, but I'd say it's becoming successively more fragile. They (ShrubCo) may or may not be able to hold off the backlash until the end of W's term. Either way, though, I think (hope) the true conservatives will take the GOP back from the neocon loonies by 2008, after which anything smacking of Big Brother will be political poison.

"Picking someone's face out of the crowd" by computer has been around the corner for decades. I would point to the fact that "the most powerful parallel processor in the world (*)" still can't do that reliably at speed, and *that* one's heavily specialized for visual work. I have little worry that our silicon proxies will be able to handle the task.

(*) The one produced by unskilled labor. .. ;-)

The license plates are more of an issue, but I suspect Britain is better equipped than the USA to work out the new power balances in fairly civilized fashion....

supachupaDecember 23, 2005 8:34 AM

hrmmfff.. fine then.. everyone takes a can of spraypaint with them.. cctv gets its eyes poked out that way.

> The railway system in the UK is awesome

and more and more trains have CCTV in the carriages, directed at the people sitting.

The first time I saw this I went to complain to the company's desk in the station. The two things I got of the girl there were an astonished "but it's for your security" and "write to the head office".
Needless to say, she hadn't any idea of the retention rules, or why this had any kind of relevance...

richDecember 23, 2005 9:02 AM

@Anonymous: "Unelected? Aren't all ministers also MPs? The PM also faces the possibility of no-confidence votes. And though not a direct influence on his power, the PM pretty much has to answer face-to-face to all of the House of Commons, including any critics and the opposition, on a regular basis"

I was thinking of the likes of Alastair Campbell who had more power than most ministers. Who elected him?

True, you have Prime Minister's questions. When the PM bothers to even turn up to the house he is asked a few questions and just gives some bullshit response. The whole thing is just a theater to give people the impression Parliament matters. Truth is it's been so hollowed out and powerless it wouldn't matter if anybody turned up or not. For proof: look at the utter nonentities you have in there these days.

@fatman: "I would suggest that the Thatcher and Major years in office hardly count as 'socialism' - in fact, quite the opposite."

You are right about Thatcher. So make that 50 years of Socialism. But could you get a cigarette paper between Major and Blair? Raising taxes, introducing GATSO cameras, selling out to Europe...

MikeDecember 23, 2005 9:28 AM

@rich

So all of Blair's "kitchen cabinet of unelected cronies" you admit that there is only really Campbell. Who isn't even with the government now, and hasn't been for ages. Like him or not he was good at what he did. Hence why he was employed.

"When the PM bothers to even turn up to the house he is asked a few questions and just gives some bullshit response."

Judging by your last claim of a completely unelected cabinet to what is probably actually none now, i reckon you have no idea whether Blair turns up or not. You're making things up.

Whether YOU BELEIVE it's bullshit or not it's political rhetoric, and not to mention that it actually takes places and does give other parties and MPs the opportunity to ask questions/ridicule the PM and the government.

So if parliament (you have also forgotten Lords as you're referring only to the Commons) doesn't matter ... in YOUR opinion ... what else do you propose in it's place?

"But could you get a cigarette paper between Major and Blair? Raising taxes, introducing GATSO cameras, selling out to Europe..."

Are you sure you live in Britain (or even have a clue)? You're either just quoting a load of gutter press tabloid headlines, or making this up. Which is it?

GordonjcpDecember 23, 2005 10:12 AM

Does this bother me? Yes, because it's a monumental waste of time. Theft of number plates is getting to be as common as car theft, particularly if you own a fairly common car. I don't own a fairly common car - I could tell you about an encounter with the police who wanted to check over a classic car because "a couple of these have been stolen recently", when I was driving the only roadworthy example in Scotland - and I hardly ever drive on motorways *anyway*.

I'll stick to twisty backroads where I can drive properly, thanks.

RichDecember 23, 2005 10:16 AM

@Mike: Interesting you mention the House of Lords. Weren't those unelected hereditary peers a medieval anachronism? The new system is much better: a million-quid donation to New Labour will secure you a peerage (Lord Drayson). A committed Socialist who lives in a luxury villa in the South of France.

What about Blair's old mate Charlie Falconer from Uni days? An amiable old buffer, now coincidentally in charge of the entire UK justice system. Who elected him?

What would I propose in its (Parliament's) place?

How about a real parliament with power to influence what happens in the UK?

For that, you'd need to repatriate power from Brussels for starters. Currently around 50% of UK legislation is originated there with parliament rubber stamping it. Then you have the legislation Blair rams through as statutory instruments with no debate. That would need to change.

With some power back in Parliament, the quality of the Members would then increase. You would get Conservatives actually standing up and speaking out against the surveillance society mentioned in the Independent article. When that happens, I will believe that Parliament is more than an empty, pointless talking shop.

As for me, I did live in Britain - fortunately I have now been lucky enough to emigrate. As for you, Mike, you have your Socialist surveillance utopia, and it looks like you're going to enjoy it!

Lord BeauDecember 23, 2005 10:22 AM

The police in the UK (where I live) are experimenting with a new system where cameras are hidden in cats' eyes (the tiny markers used to separate lanes on roads). It was exposed on the telly earlier this week.

ZwackDecember 23, 2005 3:23 PM

@Erasmus, I was wondering about the possibilities of using something like 3M Privacy guard for laptops. If you reduce the viewing angle on the plate it might be enough to allow your vehicle to get past most of those cameras without being obvious to any human observer. You would still show up on some, but perhaps if enough people used the same system and it worked enough of the time the data would be so patchy that the whole system would be useless.

Of course they would just ban using anything similar on your plates but it is a possibility.

@Gordonjcp, what do you drive? My mum drives a Morris Minor and she has been followed for a mile by the police (until she stopped in our driveway) because "one like that was just reported stolen"... The fact that it was a different colour, model (a Traveller not a 1000 Sedan) and had only been stolen fifteen minutes earlier on the other side of town (Edinburgh) so couldn't have got there in the time was irrelevant.

Z.

ZwackDecember 23, 2005 3:29 PM

@Rich, out of interest where did you emigrate to? I assume from your antipathy to Brussels that you are outside Europe now. I doubt that it is the US considering that Bush is at least as bad as Blair...

I disagree that "50% of the legislation is pushed from Brussels". And given that we vote for the MEPs whose fault is it if we don't like the ones that were elected?

What do you think of the "devolved" parliaments in Scotland and Wales? Are they as irrelevant? At what level should "power" reside? Town, County, Regional, National? I can see a real use for a multi-level democracy that works on every level with power shared at all levels from local to international. Of course it will never be tried but it would be nice, in the mean time we have to work with what we have so are you politically active or do you just complain about what you think the problems are?

Z.

John MooreDecember 23, 2005 3:44 PM

From a different angle...

Since the contagion is spreading, I think it would be useful for security experts such as Bruce to examine techniques (technology + laws + other social systems) to make such a system minimally dangerous and yet maximally effective.

If there is another big terrorist attack in the US, or sequences of smaller (Israel style) attacks, Americans will be demanding all sorts of governmental action, and it would be easy for the politicians to quickly respond with a camera system with poor protection (just as they are responding with a wall for the Mexican border). Hence it would behoove civil libertarians and security experts to get ahead of the curve and be ready with some answer other than "you shouldn't do that."

Personally, I think it is possible to make a universal surveillance system (which is what Britain is quickly tending towards) which is much harder to abuse than current systems, through the use of hard-to-forge image watermarks, usage tracking systems, tight rules on the use of the information, citizen commissions with broad powers to investigate the users and the technology, and appropriate judicial oversight.

As an interesting example of what this kind of oversight can bring, note the Florida courts throwing out drunk driving convictions because the source code for the breath analyzers is not available to the defense. Extend this thinking to a surveillance system, and you make it less dangerous.

Another issue that I have never seen brought up in these debates: a more or less universal surveillance system provides a vast amount of history which can be used for good such as *providing alibis for non-guilty suspects* in addition to assisting in anti-terrorism and anti-crime efforts. The harm these systems can cause has been widely discussed, but the good has been widely ignored.

Summary: these systems are going to happen, pretty much everywhere, regardless of what civil libertarians say. Live with it.

The best that people like Bruce can do for the world is to both point out the weaknesses in existing plans and systems, *and define how to make better ones - reducing abuse potential and maximizing effectiveness for legitimate use.*

jon liveseyDecember 23, 2005 6:20 PM

For the record, I feel pretty much as Rich does. I emigrated from the Uk twenty five years ago, and although I have a sentimental attachment to the place, I seriously doubt that I could live there. Mostly it's the passive acceptance of anything that EU/UK government - more and more it's EU these days - does to reduce freedom. This surveillance is only part of it. Restrictions on freedom of speech are another part of it. Also, as a gay atheist, I find both the criminalisation of anti-gay speech and increasingly the banning of Christianity in public spaces to be against everything I thought that England stood for. I don't like anti-gay speech, obviously, nor do I care for aggressive religion, but I want to be free to argue against them myself, not have Government control speech.

goeducDecember 24, 2005 12:45 AM

Don't forget that the system they put in place doesn't have to work. It is primarily to give the powers that be pretext for arrest and detention.

John Moore, your theories about the potential benefits that could come from such a system are technically valid. But use such as this runs counter to all demonstrated human nature, and I can't see how anyone could truly believe - especially in light of the current administration's track record - that these tools would not be usurped by those who are interested in wielding power rather than advancing the common good.

John MooreDecember 24, 2005 3:08 AM

geoduc - you indeed point out the danger of the systems. But they are inevitable, so I would hope the best thinkers on the subject work on how to minimize the damage.

As far as the current administration, I have seen nothing to indicate that they are using their surveillance powers to "wield power rather than advancing the common good." Perhaps you live in a different country than I do.

The current NSA intercepts story shows this clearly. Whether or not you think the intercepts are legal (I think there are a number of strong legal argument sin favor of them), they clearly are being done for the common good. There has been no allegation at all that *any* of the controversial Bush administration actions (NSA, CIA secret "prisons", coercive interrogation, treatment of prisoners as "illegal combatants" rather than POWS) are being done for any purpose but the common good. Again, this is true whether or not you approve of them.

There is no doubt that surveillance systems CAN be abused. In my town (Paradise Valley, AZ), which pioneered the use of traffic cameras for speed enforcement, it is clear that their primary purposes are revenue enhancement and deterring people from using our streets for commuting - both of which are, IMHO, abuses.

In any case, since this administration won't last forever and may be replaced by one I wouldn't trust (say, the HIllary Clinton administration), I very much want to see effort put into making these systems work right even when there are powerful people who want to abuse them. And I think those who oppose the systems entirely are often the right people to help in the design of the inveitable.

John MooreDecember 24, 2005 3:10 AM

I wantedd to make one more point on the abuses of such systems... all government systems are imperfect. We convict people who are innocent, and fail to catch people who are guilty. We spend taxpayer dollars for the benefit of special interest groups. Police are sometimes corrupt.

Anyone who requires systems to be abuse free is simply not doing an appropriate cost/benefit analysis, but is rather a civil liberties fundamentalist and extremist (unless the system has no benefit whatsoever).

erasmusDecember 24, 2005 3:50 AM

Sure, Occam's razor shows us that these things are normally put in place by well meaning fools. But what good is "universal surveillance" if it only used to dish out traffic fines but not aid the victims of serious crime (as I described above)? They are no surrogate for a sense of morality backed up with accountable enforcement on the ground - a sort of defense in depth.

PS - @another Bruce - Englishman Percy Shaw laid down the first cats' eyes in 1934 in Bradford, 2 decades before the Californian Mr Butts.

goeducDecember 24, 2005 11:19 AM

Again, John, you show a good deal more faith (or naievete) than the events of the past years warrant. Granted, no system is or will be perfect and corruption free - I'm not sure where you got the idea I implied otherwise. And many of these well-meaning but overreaching programs are instituted with good intentions and at least some level of oversight.

But because of the tremendous power available to those who control a system such as this, it is inevitable that it will be grossly corrupted. And frankly, with the Diebold "no paper trail" system as a recent and potent example, it's questionable as to whether any adequate safeguards are going to be implemented.

Your ideas about transparency make a great deal of sense. Again, what gives you any degree of confidence that the expertise of legitimate experts will not be usurped by political motives? This administration has shown a remarkable ability to ignore and subvert the findings of its own scientists and experts on matters like national security and global warming when they do not suit their ends. (A Democratic regime would likely do the same with issues that benefit their aims, as well.) How would a surveillance system be any different?

It's likely that systems of this nature are going to be implemented, but it's not inevitable. Giving up the fight against them before it begins is not going to help the situation.

John MooreDecember 24, 2005 2:57 PM

Goedut,
If we take your view, then how about taking a two track approach: oppose them but also work on how to make them as effective but as harmless as possible.

You are quite right that power breeds misuse. That is why it is so important to be out in front of the very likely implementation - to build whatever safeguards are possible into the system.

The police photo radar system also has room for abuse (beyond it's speeding reduction goal) - for example (as with this system), blackmail. I don't know of any cases where that sort of abuse has happened.

As to government ignoring experts on certain subjects (and btw, the administration's actions on global warming are quite reasonable - even if you believe the "consensus scientific opinion"), the easiest way to be ignored is to be so "anti" as to be viewed as a purist or extremist. Hence my arguments.

I have seen security experts make statements which are so absolutist in their requirements (i.e. requiring perfect systems or failing to recognize that even significantly flawed systems can enhance security) that they are indeed likely to be ignored.d

JackDecember 28, 2005 1:24 PM

"... is only the beginning of plans to monitor the movements of all British citizens."

I see a bright future for the hat business... Just wear a hat with a large rim, and you'll be fine... :-p

J.

GilJanuary 15, 2006 11:45 PM

I can see the police "justifying" keeping the records by saying that after a crime they will be able to track the perps through the records to find where they have gone.

But my real concern is this. In most of this country not too long ago most people lived in small towns. They knew everybody who lived within 20 miles or so. If any stranger came into town everybody would immediately recognize him as such and would keep an eye on him. We were much more secure because every eye was on the stranger. He had no privacy. He couldn't fall asleep in church without everyone's knowing it.

Now we mostly live in the cities, and for the most part we are anonymous. We often don't even know the names of the neighbors. If a thief drives a car through the neighborhood casing them, we can't recognize it as a problem. And we no longer feel safe, because we can't recognize the threats.

While I can understand your objection to wholesale surveillance, it is, as you said, not a difference in kind, but a difference in scale. Yes, we should establish rules about what the police can do with the information, and when they violate the rules they should be punished. But I, for one, hope that they implement such systems here. I think that on balance I will feel safer. I hope that they drive police cruisers through the shopping center parking lots and check all the plates.


PeteJanuary 16, 2006 8:14 AM

@Another_bruce,

Cats eyes are more complex than botts dots - they also include a reflector. They were invented by Percy Shaw when he saw the eyes of a cat by
the side of the road reflected in his headlights.
What a co-incidence, just think: if that cat had been walking in the opposite direction, he could have invented the pencil-sharpener instead.

ElectricmayhemJanuary 30, 2006 9:36 AM

Viz all the above.....Facinating reading but with little substance as to remedy.

Our servants have now become our masters...and why?....because we as a race (human) are too damn lazy and incompetant to do anything about it.

We should force our legislators to make sure that firstly surveillance of all kinds is justified, secondly, that it is only used to survey and not to raise revenue and third, that those who control it are COMPLETELY answerable to the country's subjects.

All surveillance is intrusive and an abuse and needs to be curbed....and should only be used as a properly guided force for the good.

It is our failure to block governments and councils ramapant march to domination that has led us to this sorry state of affairs...it is our fault and we now pay the price for it.....as a very minor example.....Hackney council have a dedicated camera pointing at a side road "parking" bay that is in fact a 'honey trap' simply to catch unwary drivers who pull off the main road to prevent congestion to drop passengers off. is it designed to prevent crime...don't make me laugh....Hackney councillors don't care about crime....doesn't raise revenue...

Do the good people of Hackney complain....nope....do they insist that their counselors who approved this 'robbery' are removed from public office....nope.

So, in essence we condone this idiotic state of affairs and allow it to continue willy-nilly.....

One day we will all wake up in a communist police state powerless to resist....

So can I suggest that everyone either stop whinging or get off your backsides and do something about it like voting these useless idiots out of power and voting in people whose interests are aimed at our common good.

we, after all, only get what we ask for!!!

ElectricmayhemJanuary 30, 2006 9:37 AM

Viz all the above.....Facinating reading but with little substance as to remedy.

Our servants have now become our masters...and why?....because we as a race (human) are too damn lazy and incompetant to do anything about it.

We should force our legislators to make sure that firstly surveillance of all kinds is justified, secondly, that it is only used to survey and not to raise revenue and third, that those who control it are COMPLETELY answerable to the country's subjects.

All surveillance is intrusive and an abuse and needs to be curbed....and should only be used as a properly guided force for the good.

It is our failure to block governments and councils ramapant march to domination that has led us to this sorry state of affairs...it is our fault and we now pay the price for it.....as a very minor example.....Hackney council have a dedicated camera pointing at a side road "parking" bay that is in fact a 'honey trap' simply to catch unwary drivers who pull off the main road to prevent congestion to drop passengers off. is it designed to prevent crime...don't make me laugh....Hackney councillors don't care about crime....doesn't raise revenue...

Do the good people of Hackney complain....nope....do they insist that their counselors who approved this 'robbery' are removed from public office....nope.

So, in essence we condone this idiotic state of affairs and allow it to continue willy-nilly.....

One day we will all wake up in a communist police state powerless to resist....

So can I suggest that everyone either stop whinging or get off your backsides and do something about it like voting these useless idiots out of power and voting in people whose interests are aimed at our common good.

we, after all, only get what we ask for!!!

PrincipAlFebruary 5, 2006 5:13 PM

This has been active on a small scale in Australia for years now.
About 10 years ago, the New South Wales government implemented a thing called Safe-T-Cam on the Hume Highway between Albury and Sydney. The idea was to snap pictures of heavy vehicles at specific points on the highway, OCR the plates and record it in a database to measure travel times. They could then use these to identify speeding vehicles and log-book violations.
The system selected targets based on image analyis of something which looked like a truck, however this could be administratively overridden so that it would photograph everything. This feature is routinely used for law enforcement purposes (i.e. to find a specific vehicle).

EdNovember 27, 2006 10:02 PM

If the government can legally track all of the citizens, then the citizens should be able to track all of the politicians. In the US (where I live), the politicians and special interest groups completely own mass media, and .... most likely, no politician will ever be tracked.

jaySeptember 12, 2007 7:35 PM

It done in the US too.I recently bought tracking gps' for my 6 tracks at www.ggppss.com. I just log into my PC at work and wamo... There they all are on a map....It great. Cheap too!

Vehicle TrackingOctober 23, 2008 5:02 AM

A great way to track your vehicles from a business perspective, placing a bit of presure on your employees makes them work harder. Keeping track of assets etc is essentia.

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