Today in Panopticon news

This happens all the time: just when you think things are bad in the US, the UK shows how it's really done...


(I couldn't find a UK plate generator...)

Britain will be first country to monitor every car journey
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. [...] Already there are plans to extend the database by increasing the storage period to five years and by linking thousands of additional cameras so that details of up to 100 million number plates can be fed each day into the central databank.

(Previously.)

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65 Responses:

  1. smackfu says:

    Yikes. It would not be at all surprising to me if they used this to give speeding tickets. They already have much hated speed cameras.

    ...On further reflection, I think tracking your every movement is worse than a speeding ticket.

  2. abates says:

    Not one but two mentions of terrorism.

    But in all the terrorist attacks so far in London they've taken the Underground and buses...

    • mcfnord says:

      In the U.S. since the terrorism you have to put a return address on mail you give to the post office. Like terrorists can't make up an address. This baffles me.

      • kchrist says:

        I had a post office clerk tell me that a return address without a name isn't good enough and refused to take my package until I added my name to the address I already had in the return address area. She insisted this has been a USPS requirement "since 9/11", despite the fact that I regularly mail packages return-addressed like this from other post offices with no problem.

  3. baconmonkey says:

    I read something a while back about Brittan was considering requiring that all cars have transponders in them that would auotomatically alert the police when the driver speeds, and issue a ticket - much like some rental car companies use.

    • waider says:

      Not that I have any inclination to defend my next-door neighbours, but I heard pretty much the same deal about the US. You can't believe everything you read/hear/get emailed from some bozo...

  4. hafnir says:

    At what point is it easier to just put some kind of lojack/transponder/rfid on every car? (and on every thing and every person...?)

  5. lexinatrix says:

    Weren't there several stories of annoyed motorists maiming the video cameras along the roadways?

    • vincel says:

      Gatso speed cameras are regularly attacked. Sometimes tractors are used to pull them over; more commonly the lenses are painted over, or even "necklaced" with burning tyres.

      The CCTV cameras discussed in the article are largely ignored, since they cannot at present be used for speeding convictions.

  6. if this is to prevent crimninal and terrorist activities, is the British government unaware of the ability to:
    a) take off your plates (as some criminals do)
    b) change plates (see almost every james bond movie)
    ***side note, anyone ever seen the tourist stores near Fisherman's wharf that sell "novelty" (read: stolen) out of state liscense plates?)
    c) remove the transponder?

    This sounds more like big brother trying to spy on the everyday person more than an attempt to thwart high crime and terrorism...

    And as far as the transponders, they don't have to do it malisciously, I mean how many people have a fast track or ezpass in this country voluntarily? Think about it...

    • supersat says:

      Of course, most criminals are stupid, and probably wouldn't think about their plates.

      Organized crime, on the other hand, is a completely different game. I wouldn't be surprised if you could print out your own license plate, tape it on to your car, and confuse whatever OCR system they're using.

    • g_na says:

      I keep my FasTrak transponder in the mylar bag in the glove box except for the few seconds while I drive through the toll booth. Just in case.

      • paisleychick says:

        As do I. They track the traffic on 511.org by tracking the cars with fastpasses on the freeways around the Bay Area. They said they will strip out the personal data, but I don't trust 'em to strip it out.

        • jwz says:

          Are they also doing traffic analysis by tracking powered-on cell phones? I don't remember if I read that that was actually going on, or was still just a proposal.

          • violentbloom says:

            it was a proposal I thought...but maybe they actually did it. I also heard they were just going to start tracking everyone by cellphone..can't remember in relation to what though.

          • paisleychick says:

            I have no idea. I just know that I read the fine print in a letter that FasTrak send out a couple of years ago and thought that putting the tracker in the mylar bag would be a good idea. You can read more here

            I have also turned off my tracker on my previous cell phone, but I haven't figured out how to on my current one and hadn't thought about it until now. Must go do reaserch.....

            • jwz says:

              There's no way to turn off cell phone tracking besides powering it off; the telco knows what cell your phone is handshaked to, and those can be as small as a couple hundred feet.

              • paisleychick says:

                What a *wonderful* feature.

                I turned something off on my previous phone (Samsung flip with Sprint), which I think turned off the GPS unless you were calling 911. Tis a moot point now.

                Give my privacy or give me death? Doesn't quite have the same ring and I guess that's the price we pay for the convenience of being always in contact. Plus, I like being alive for the moment. I can always unplug if I want, really, I can, uh huh, sure.

                • jwz says:

                  Yeah, my phone has that preference too, but I don't think it actually does anything. I get the impression that it's an "opt-in" bit that maybe someday will allow them to give out information about you to third parties running location-aware applications like dating services or something. But I'm unaware of any such applications that actually exist yet.

                  Doesn't change what the telco knows about you, though; it's kind of a fundamental aspect of how the cell network works that they have to know who and where you are in order to route incoming calls to you.

                  • aris1234 says:

                    The tracking feature (at least with GSM) was not really a design feature - just someone figured out that if your phone is in range of one or more cells, and you can measure the time it takes for a packet of data to get from each cell to the phone, then you can fairly easily triangulate a location from this.

                  • I had the impression that the visibly-modifiable location feature had to do with sending that information (if you so desired) to other handsets that you called/text-messaged.

                  • jwz says:

                    I've never heard of a phone that actually let you do that...

                  • That was intended as an expansion, probably apocryphal, of the "never-used/-implemented feature".

              • bear_cat says:

                Better yet, cdma2000 base stations report either the range or the round-trip time (I forget which and the spec is at work) to 1/16 chip (77 nsec, 23 m), on access channel messages. Just ping the mobile, redirect it to another BS, ping it from there, and you have 2 ranges.

                If the mobile is on a call, it's probably already talking to 2 base stations because it's in `soft handoff'.

          • jwjr says:


            Missouri's planning to do it.
            I've read that other states are, too, though supposedly they're not tracking the individual phone identity.

            Apart from this, the mobile telcos in the U.S. are required to track the locations of the phones in real time to within well under a kilometer for E911 purposes. Which raises the question of whether they keep the data, and for how long.

            Hey, Virginia has used cell phone information to find parents delinquent in paying child support!
            http://www.nbc4.com/news/4759495/detail.html

        • codenazi says:

          Sigh... Speaking of fasttrack:

          Does anybody here know what's up with the eating of two more lanes on the Bay Bridge toll-plaza for fasttrack-only? 20% fewer lanes and longer wait times for those of us that really don't want to get a fasttrack transponder?

          I saw warning of such changes last time I used the bridge... it would be horrible to have the drive to Mr. JWZ's fine establishment be even more messed up.

          If only I could find a way to move out of the horrible suburbs...

          • paisleychick says:

            You might smack me down, but how about BART and a brisk walk?

            Why don't you want one? You can keep it in its mylar bag, or a Fritos bag if you lose the original, and then they can't track your movements, except for crossing the bridges. The convenience is nice.

            As to answer your question, they are trying to paint the lanes, but have been impeded by the rain - read more here

            • violentbloom says:

              but you can't get home on bart unless you leave early.

              • codenazi says:

                I'd LOVE to take bart all the time. I do when I can... but that last train out of SF at 12:20 or so is really limiting. If they had a couple token trains, say once every 45min to an hour or so during the night, I'd take it in a second.

                In fact... most people I know would love to do that. Many would like to go do stuff in SF all the time, but bart closing kind of ruins that.

                Heck... even a single train at around 2:30-2:45 would be great, so you could go drink at the DNA, and jump on bart after the bars close.

                I really just need to figure out a way to telecommute from SF or something, and skip the whole problem. sigh.

            • codenazi says:

              that article has some strange points in it:

              "We haven't seen a surge in signups for FasTrak, so we're expecting a backup,'' Weiss said. "Two more lanes will be converted to FasTrak, and we haven't gotten the number of people who use those lanes to sign up.''

              So they know it's a very unpopular idea, and are doing it anyway.

              "We're getting down to the resistance level -- to people who, for whatever reason, aren't getting transponders,'' Weiss said. "What it might take to persuade them is being stuck in increased congestion at the toll plaza and them seeing free-flowing traffic in the FasTrak lanes.''

              In fact, they know it's a very unpopular idea, and are just going to try and force transponders by subjecting everybody else to bad traffic. (read: more pollution and gas usage, too)

              I'm curious why it's such a "needed" thing to push fastrak here.

              But that total falls far short of the 60 percent to 70 percent use rates on East Coast bridges...

              Keeping Up With The Joneses? Or maybe they don't want to pay the wages of the two people to sit in those booths for rush-hours every day? I'd normally go with that, but it's such a small amount - especially compared with what it must cost them to repaint those lanes.

              I has to be the idea of getting more people to get transponders in their car, as per the point of this journal entry.

              As for why I don't want to get one? Same reason I don't buy from iTMS. Sure, I can defeat them with technology right now, like a faraday cage for the transponder, but it's still marketing numbers.

              "XX% of americans have a transponder, so we can think about implementing plan YYYY"

              Supporting bad ideas, even a little, is not usually recommended.

              • jwz says:

                Well, I can see their reasoning. They see it solely as a traffic-reduction measure. Carpooling is also very unpopular, but they try to force people to do it anyway. If you honestly don't give a shit about the privacy implications, then trying to force more people to use FasTrack makes plenty of sense.

                • codenazi says:

                  Hmm... makes sense, I guess. You just have to have blinders on for certain aspects of it, which is something I should expect in people by now.

                  It seems like backwards reasoning, though. It's negative force - punishing those that drive, hoping they will change. I would think that positive force would work better; better public transportation, benefits to carpooling, etc. I somehow doubt that making people sit in traffic longer will have any other effect than more gas burned into the air.

                  Meh. At least I can carpool with friends through the annoying traffic when coming to SF for fun thing some times. If only I could consistently talk two or more to come along so I could use the carpool lane...

    • charles says:

      While these measures do nothing to prevent particular criminal or terrorist acts, they're effective forensic measures after the fact. The massive CCTV presence in London didn't prevent the London bombings, but it did provide a lot of subsequent evidence that allowed police to determine precisely how the attack occurred.

      The database of car movements will presumably serve a similar function. If a car bomb goes off in the middle of the city, there's a good chance that investigators will quickly be able to trace the recent movements of that car regardless of whether its plates were legit or not.

      Of course, whether this capability is worth the privacy/security trade-off of the government being able to trace everyone's movements regardless of whether they did anything wrong or not is another question entirely.

      • jwz says:

        How long do you think it'll be before this database is used in a divorce case?

        • quercus says:

          It's already possible (recent news stories have been highlighting this) to gain access to the UK licence plate -> registered address database. The DVLA (the government body) is of course "secure", but in practice they have interpreted this to mean "Give us some money and a printed letterhead, claim to be a 'parking' company or a private investigator and we'll let you do lookups for a fee". There's no verification of any "need" on a case-by-case basis, so you can ask for queries on any licence plate you choose.

          I doubt if this surveillance database will be any more secured.

        • charles says:

          I suspect it won't be, directly. This sort of thing is too sensitive to just throw around in trivial matters, and the various departments involved will know that the less attention is paid to it, the more useful it will be.

          On the other hand, the information will exist and people will have access to it. Which means that it will be used surreptitiously. So you wouldn't use it as primary evidence in a divorce case, you'd just call up your mate in the department, find out where your spouse is going while you're away, and use that information as a step towards gathering the legitimate-appearing evidence you'll use in court.

          (It reminds me, in a trivial kind of way, how I found out one of my old co-workers was gay -- completely by accident because I was abusing IRC operator powers looking for something else entirely. If information like this exists, and people have access to it, your privacy isn't safe even if nobody's looking for you specifically.)

      • Sure, but they don't need to spy on everyone, all the time, to do it. Recall that in the OK City bombings, they just subpoenaed all the CC video tapes from local merchants, and were able to track McViegh's truck easily. All this does is let them abuse tracking with no fuss.

  7. pnendick says:

    Honestly, what is the point? Even though the UK has a much more legitimate reasons to fear terrorism than the US, the notion of counter-terrorism is hardly mentioned in this news piece. Much more time is spent selling this as a way to deal with criminals in cars, something I am not aware of being such a pressing issue there. And wouldn't a mandatory RFID sort of system be more effective in that cause than this license plate scanning? What is it really for? Is it really about the thought police? Why, why, why? I don't get it!

    • nelc says:

      Politically, an RFID system won't fly. The ID card system has had enough trouble getting through Parliament, a mandatory transponder/RFID legislation would just die if they tried to pass it. Besides, I reckon a lot of them would just... stop working shortly after installation. "Doesn't work? Beats me what's wrong with it, squire. I'm sure it was fine when when I bought it. Computers, eh!"

      Whereas a CCTV system wouldn't rely on the co-operation of a bolshie public. But it beats me what makes the government think that they can actually make a nationwide system work reliably enough. It's not as though government computer projects have worked particularly well in the past. And the London congestion charge system isn't especially reliable, I've heard, and that only has to recognise a far smaller number of cars going into and out of London, not track them all around the country.

  8. yosh says:

    Everyone knows that bombers prefer public transportation anyways...

  9. You could probably have used a British Columbia plate and no one would have known the difference.

  10. mcfnord says:

    Is it reasonable to request that the data also be used to optimize traffic flow and public transit development? Or is the danger just too great to be practical yet? WHEN WILL THIS TERRORIST MENACE BE STOPPED?

    • skington says:

      Given that the Government has been talking about monitoring cars using GPS to implement road taxing, which is a problem up North because tall buildings get in the way of GPS satellites (not to mention the inherent security problem of not being able to trust the device that monitors car movement), I do hope that they use it to track aggregate movement of traffic. (I remember a specialist saying that nobody actually knows where people drive from and to, they just know how much traffic is on any given road, and guess the rest.)

  11. zzedar says:

    You misspelled "echelon."

  12. decibel45 says:

    Hey, that should help things greatly, 'cause monitoring everywhere else with cameras has helped reduce crime SO MUCH!

    On another note, it would me interesting to be involved with that database...

  13. telecart says:

    Just cover your plate with nail gloss; to the naked eye it will look a-okay, but to a camera it will look reflective and unreadable.

    Also: I find it abhorrant that these people have the tenacity to use tax money for this. Yes, this is really what the people want their money to be used for. Sheesh,

  14. pavel_lishin says:

    I'd probably make copies of plates, and slap them on identical-looking cars. Wonder if the system would notice that the cars seem to have an average speed of a kajillion kph.

  15. erg says:

    Why do I have the feeling the Expats from the UK in BC, somehow did better with their forefathers than we did with the Puritans?

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/ArticleNews/TPStory/LAC/20051222/SWINGERS22/TPNational/Canada

  16. spudtater says:

    I don't suppose it's legal to get license plates with fancy lettering on them?