Function Creep in London Congestion-Charge Cameras

In London (the system was built for road-fare collection, and is now being used for counterterrorism):

Police are to be given live access to London’s congestion charge cameras—allowing them to track all vehicles entering and leaving the zone.

Anti-terror officers will be exempted from parts of the Data Protection Act to allow them to see the date, time and location of vehicles in real time.

They previously had to apply for access on a case-by-case basis.

I’ll bet you anything that, soon after this data is used for antiterrorism purposes, more exceptions will be put in place for more routine police matters.

EDITED TO ADD (8/16): Well, that didn’t take long.

Posted on July 18, 2007 at 11:40 AM25 Comments


Adam July 18, 2007 12:22 PM

I believe they’re already talking about using it for non-terrorism related investigations. (At least, that’s how I understood the report on BBC News.)

Aaron July 18, 2007 1:07 PM

Lovely–there’s an ostensible “Data Protection Act” to prevent unwarranted intrusion into personal data and the spectre of a creeping police state….and so the government simply “exempts” favored parties from needing to comply with the Act. Certainly convenient if you’re the government.

cassiel July 18, 2007 2:16 PM

Patrol cars are already equipped with ANPR kit, which constantly scans vehicles within view for offences like insurance violations. And – yes, you guessed it – this equipment was originally installed for anti-terrorist operations before its scope was widened to encompass conventional crime.

dragonfrog July 18, 2007 2:17 PM

It only makes sense. What possible use can the terror squads make of this network? None whatever, is my guess (*). But the regular cops – they could use this for all kinds of things – watching for stolen cars, confiscating the vehicles of deadbeats who duck out of child support payments, catching people driving on suspended licenses, etc.

As I see it, the only possible usefulness of extending accesss to this network to the terror squads is as the thin end of a wedge for getting access for regular police force (and perhaps eventually other government departments). They’re not being given access so they can bust terrorists, they’re being given access because they’re the easiest people to give access to right now – the next step en route to getting the “right” people access.

  • That is assuming the terror squads are actually targetting terrorists, not trade unionists and political adversaries, whom it would be very nice to be able to track and surveil without accountability.

Matt from CT July 18, 2007 3:37 PM

Terrorism is The Excuse of the Twenty First Century.

That and Global Warming.

Haven’t heard much lately about drugs and pedophiles.

David July 18, 2007 3:39 PM

This is great! Maybe finally we’ll get footage of those creatures, as the scurry about and go “feep!”…

Stephen B July 18, 2007 4:05 PM

There are other traffic monitoring systems which are much more prevalent in the UK, such as Trafficmaster:

No doubt these types of services will be allied to the Police monitoring of the London Congestion Charge cameras, in much the same way as the Police can easily access your centralised car-insurance records from their patrol cars. With over 8000 miles of Trafficmaster cameras alone prevalent throughout the UK, this will be a function-creep of much more significant dimension.


Pi July 18, 2007 6:43 PM

Assuming the terror squads are actually targetting terrorists, not trade unionists and political adversaries, whom it would be very nice to be able to track and surveil without accountability.

Of course, politicians would never want to know someone’s whereabouts for the purposes of threatening them physically.

And certainly not in the UK.

Why, the very idea!

Stefan Wagner July 18, 2007 11:45 PM

I would offer a ‘you won’t find a better’-bet, if you could make a precise promise:
what is ‘soon’.

if soon is ‘less than 2 years’, I bet nobody wants to bet. 🙂

John Davies July 19, 2007 2:38 AM

At the rate that the congestion charge is going up it’ll only be rich people and terrorists who drive into central London anyway! Have the US government starting paying it yet or are they still refusing on the grounds that it’s a tax?

Fortunately for those of us who live in the more civilised parts of the UK the current “War on Terror” madness seems to be restricted to major airports and to London.

Peter Amey July 19, 2007 4:11 AM

One of the things these systems have already done is drive up the rate of number plate cloning. The “evil doer” simply finds a car of the same make, model and colour as their own and makes up a duplicate plate. The car now appears “innocent” and any offences that /do/ get associated with it land on the doorstep of the true owner of the plate.

I suffered from this years before cameras when my motorcycle plate was stolen and put on a bank getaway vehicle. The next thing I had the police call by looking for the money. At least in that case the plate was physically removed not just copied making it slightly easier to escape their suspicions.

AJ Finch July 19, 2007 4:16 AM

This is great!
Now, I can rob the Bank of England, drive off in my getaway car, stop in a back alley in the city, change my number plates, and because the coppers will be relying on their cameras to catch me, I’ll be home free. … Of course, I’ll still pay my Congestion Charge.

Anonymous July 19, 2007 5:26 AM

“I’ll bet you anything that, soon after this data is used for anti-terrorism purposes, that more exceptions are put in place for more routine police matters.”

Oh, you mean like how the EU’s Fast-track extradition warrants, brought in for ‘terrorists’, are now used on people who steal tyres and …piglets…

So, catching people who fart in public for example?

This is why you have the second amendment, people. If human history teaches us nothing else it is that you’ll be forced to fight for your liberty at some point. The only question is where you choose to draw the line.

Colossal Squid July 19, 2007 9:34 AM

As a cyclist I look forward to a fitter generation of terrorists switching to two wheels to carry out their nefarious schemes.
Or just falsifying number plates and stealing cars like they usually do.

CharlieAmerica July 19, 2007 9:46 AM

Funny, it woudl seem to me (as I do a lot of work in the area of intrusion detection) that “terrorist” can quit easily “tap” into these datalines and capture the same real-time information.

Not that they would do anything untowards with the info…

Man, that tongue barely fits in that cheek anymore.

paul July 19, 2007 10:43 AM

It sure is a good thing that the behavior of the police in Great Britain is at all times beyond reproach.

I wonder how long before they start making exemptions for telemarketers as well. “I couldn’t help noticing you were stuck in traffic, so let’s talk about….”

Xellos July 19, 2007 12:46 PM

“Haven’t heard much lately about drugs and pedophiles.”

Then you must not have allergies (ie. need to buy Sudafed) or be following the network neutrality arguments. Those two are still as popular as ever.

Simon_c July 20, 2007 4:06 AM

@Stephen and @Tom
Traffic master by design only captures the last 3 letters of your number plate, and as soon as the date is processed, it is deleted.

At least, that’s how it was when the system went in. [mode tinfoil_hat=on]but, who knows if MI6 has been having a quiet word….[/mode]

GiacomoL July 20, 2007 12:22 PM

As much as I dislike the surveillance society currently being built in Britain, I have to point out that the “Tony Martin” linked by “Pi at July 18, 2007 06:43 PM” belongs to Veritas, a right-wing looney bin of a party with a penchant for racism.

This doesn’t mean that this legislation currently being introduced by “civil” people currently in power couldn’t be used for nefarious ends… but I’m sure people like Tony Martin would be the first to actually use it for political violence. The existence of such people should be reason enough never to give any government powers like these.

Pi July 21, 2007 10:02 AM

Should Anthony Martin’s political affiliations distract from the fact that a Labour politician sent someone to silence him by breaking his legs?

Surveillance info misused makes such things easier.

Now, if potential legbreakers are afraid of getting hurt, perhaps we have less to fear from such surveillance… such quiet deterrence being a primary goal of the 2nd Amendment.

…which Britain lacks, much to the delight, one presumes, of people like Mr. Martin’s “friend” in local government.

Jim July 21, 2007 10:36 AM

Politicians love cameras like drunks love drink, so it’s no wonder we have more cameras all over the place.

1980: Candid Camera begins adult series on HBO. Reagan is elected; John Lennon is murdered.

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