Why doesn’t Theresa May want mandatory tracking of all cars?

Because it is an absurd idea may well be your answer to that question even before you’ve reached the end of it. But bear with me a moment.

Imagine a government policy to have mandatory tracking devices in all motor vehicles, which would record all the journeys and store the data. The data would normally be private but could be accessed by the police and others if they subsequently discovered a reason to suspect someone. (You may be able to guess where I am going with this…)

It would cost a fair amount of money to implement, but the government could offer up grants to pay for the equipment, and make the installation and checking of it part of everyone’s MOT. Enforcement could follow with speed cameras upgraded to snap anyone who does not have a functioning tracker device as they go past. Sure some people will get into trying to hide their travels by somehow sidestepping or disabling the tracking, but then people doing that clearly will have something to hide – so if any behaviour like that is spotted then it can be filed in the ‘suspicious behaviour’ pile.

Oh and don’t worry – all those tracking devices will store data securely in an encrypted form and it will only be carefully authorised requests that will grant access to them.

No problem, hey? You do know just how many crimes involve cars don’t you? Most paedophiles and most terrorists have a driving license, remember. As for car bombs, the clue is in the name.

And after all, what does an innocent person have to fear from someone else being able to build up a picture of their daily life, learning large parts of where they go to shop, whose homes they go to visit, who they frequently park near, which pubs and clubs they visit or where they go on holiday?

Well, I think you can imagine the reaction a Home Secretary would get if they announced those plans to track everyone’s car movements, and not just from those who usually worry about civil liberties…

So why is the reaction different when the Home Secretary says she wants to track everyone’s online movements?

After all, although the parallel between my thought experiment and the Draft Communications Data Bill is not perfect, if anything the unthinkable (tracking all cars) is less intrusive and less prone to data being wrongly used than the internet proposals.

The internet proposals involve the precise details of which pages on which websites everyone has visited and who they have communicated with online. My vehicle tracking example does not go nearly as far: no record of who you travel with, no tracking of where you go to once you park your car – and with data stored separately in everyone’s individual car, there is much less scope for abuse of it than ISP databases which can be accessed via one dodgy authorisation.

What is more, the vehicle tracking idea has if anything a greater scope for tackling crime than the online tracking idea. Think of all the speeding offences you could end up catching, not to mention tracking down dodgy cars without MOTs, people who have not got insurance and the like.

Unlike my satirical rewrite of the Home Secretary Theresa May’s piece calling for online tracking to make it a call for tracking every pedestrian, the vehicle tracking one is (vaguely) feasible.

So why is vehicle tracking unthinkable and internet tracking proposed? The answer I think is a simple one.

The idea of tracking your vehicle is a much more immediate, tangible and easy to understand issue. Having ISPs (companies named with an acronym no less) collect a bit of extra data is more technical, seems less immediate and harder to fully understand.

That is the challenge for civil liberties campaigners over the Draft Communications Data Bill.

* Mark Pack is Party President and Co-leader of the party. He is editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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14 Comments

  • Richard Dean 10th Jul '12 - 2:39pm

    Well, now you’ve brought it up, it’ll probably get on the government’s agenda. Thanks a million!

    In the meantime, here are suggestions to avoid the fateful day

    > because terrorist offences are more serious than speeding
    > because planning requires discussion
    > because it would be too expensive
    > because it would be too disruptive – by contrast there’s no need for the public to fit any new IT technology

  • jenny barnes 10th Jul '12 - 2:43pm

    But they already have tracking devices on most people. They are called mobile phones.

  • Mandatory tracking of cars has been proposed in the past for road pricing.

  • @Alistair
    You are right, mainly as some form of tracking is probably the only way it could work. So perhaps if there was such a proposal it would be to:

    “Undertake preparations for the introduction of a system of road pricing in a second parliament.” 😉

  • The data maps you could produce using the information provided by these tracking devices would be a) unspeakably cool and interesting; b) genuinely useful in policymaking.

  • For a moment I thought I was on Tebbit’s blog……

  • If it was Tebbit’s blog he’d be proposing tracking bikes, to make sure we were all getting on them.

  • Tony Dawson 10th Jul '12 - 4:54pm

    @Richard Dean

    ” because terrorist offences are more serious than speeding”

    But mandatory tracking of cars would be highly-effective in relation to terrorism as well as millions of vehicle offences (which would pay for it!). You could know where every single vehicle was (and speed) every single second of the year. And it wouldn’t be hard or expensive. !=It’s effectively reverse-signalling of the Satnav.

  • Peter Hayes 10th Jul '12 - 6:54pm

    Number plate tracking already exists, I don’t know how much central storage exists but the cameras over motorways already track you.

  • I’m not convinced that some in the organisations the Home Secretary represents, don’t want tracking of cars and pedestrians. The question I think is how to achieve it without raising (to much of) an outcry.

    Internet tracking (as proposed) is a necessary precursor to such aspirations. Why mandate the fitting of tracking devices when manufacturers are installing always-on internet devices in cars and people voluntarily carry smartphones and other such devices that regularly report their location to internet-based service providers. Given this and the relatively small step of requiring ISP’s to retain device location/connection details in the internet traffic log and you have a reasonable dataset that can be mined for tracking purposes.

    After thought: “And after all, what does an innocent person have to fear from someone else being able to build up a picture of their daily life, learning large parts of where they go to shop, whose homes they go to visit, who they frequently park near, which pubs and clubs they visit or where they go on holiday?”

    If you are tempted to agree with this statement then just take a look at what criminals and advertising companies can do today with information people voluntarily release on social networking sites combined with other public information sources…

  • Stuart Mitchell 12th Jul '12 - 7:56am

    “because terrorist offences are more serious than speeding”

    Depends how you define “serious”. In terms of numbers killed and injured, speeding is a much bigger problem.

    But Jenny is right. Almost everybody carries a tracking device around with them in the form of their phone. This information can be – and frequently is – used by the authorities. So the question can be turned on its head: if this kind of tracking is such an affront to our civil liberties, then why is nobody up in arms about mobile phones?

  • Bob Wootton 4th Apr '13 - 9:37pm

    A warning about this infringement of civil liberties is in a stick man cartoon/picture in a book published in the 1970’s. The book is Designing Freedom and can be downloaded and printed off from the website http://www.SCiO.org.uk It is a small book but do double sided printing.
    The United States IRS wanted to build up a profile for every taxpayer. They did not need to use the CIA. The information could be bought from private corporations! This is also warned about in the cartoon.

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