The Independent View: surveillance lessons from Birmingham

Birmingham, the city that this week played host to the Conservative party conference, has also been hosting a grass roots battle for Liberty.

This battle takes the form of a campaign run by residents against Project Champion. This project involved the police installing automated number plate recognition cameras (ANPR) in a Muslim area of the city.

It has now been shown that the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) provided the project’s funding as part of an anti-terror grant. This raises the questions as to why people were mislead by senior officers into believing the cameras were installed for crime prevention purposes.

The nasty nature of this targeted scheme is obvious; it sought to create what the author of Spy Blog calls a ‘mass surveillance ghetto’ in Birmingham. I hope it now opens people’s eyes to the far more dangerous and insidious nature of blanket surveillance that some authoritarians proffer as an alternative to discriminatory surveillance.

ANPR differs from CCTV in that the information captured by the cameras is processed and stored on a massive centralized database. Although these cameras in a Muslim area are currently not in use (as I write it’s unclear if they will be taken down), there will remain a national network of over 10,000 cameras. Together they have captured over 7,600,000,000 occasions on which the location of people’s vehicles have been automatically logged. This data is held for five years at the National ANPR Data Centre (NADC) that is operated by the National Police Improvement Agency and routinely shared with other countries.

This makes ANPR a dangerous component of the Database State, which is what we call the trend to manage society by collecting data. Mass surveillance: bureaucracy using computers to watch people, an authoritarian oversight of all aspects of our lives.

There is however some cause of hope as upon announcing the Freedom Bill, Clegg stated

Our ambition is to create a society where no law-abiding individual ever feels intimidated by the state, just for going about their day-to-day business.

Let us be clear, the routine monitoring and storage of free individuals’ movements is the behaviour of an intimidating stalker state. That such schemes can be set-up without democratic debate with grants from CPO (A private company, acting as a pseudo-executive agency of the Home Office) must be cause for serious concern to all of us.

However one possible problem with placing the system under statutory regulation will be the establishment of a right in law to collect the data, and place controls on its use, storage and access by third parties.

Current legal frameworks for managing the storage and access of data are hugely inadequate. The laws that govern this area such as RIPA or the Data Protection Act will offer no help; they have failed to protect privacy. In addition to regulating specific surveillance technologies we need to look at establishing positive protections in law for individual privacy and a mechanism for giving people a right to compensation when their information is misused. Otherwise the erosion of our freedom will continue.

Having tasted success with fighting ID cards, NO2ID will continue in our fight to stop the Database State.

James Elsdon-Baker is a civil liberties advocate that works for the non-partisan NO2ID campaign.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • The easiest and cheapest way to make sure that these citizen-tracking databases are never misused or abused is to destroy them. Not just delete them (which anybody can say they’ve done) but remove and smash the drives that the data is recorded on.

    Anything less gives you no security that some future government will not come in and use its control of this data to undermine civil liberties.

  • Richard Hill 9th Oct '10 - 11:08am

    Personaly I am all for them, hpoefully they will not just be restricted to Muslim areas as the rest of us are just as bad on average. The argument that some future goverment might misuse the info does not work on me. If a bad goverment came into power I think they would quickly find and develope ways of doing what they wanted. Better to have a good society where people don’t think they need that kind of goverment.

  • Richard Hill 9th Oct '10 - 2:17pm

    I am sure if it is as bad as you say and it was wasting a lot of police time they would sort it out. Just because there are problems should we give up all together. Personaly I think we should try, see what the problems are and work out possible solutions until we get it right.

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