Too much information…

The BBC has learned of a national network of cameras that will be monitoring all major routes in Britain within the next few months (BBC News – New road cameras ‘unregulated’).  Before reading on I suggest you check the link and watch the video clip.

It is always hard talking about CCTV in general, or the number of cameras within Great Britain without sounding like a conspiracy theorist.  So I better start by establishing a few of my basic thoughts on the matter.

  • Cameras are inevitable!  There, I’ve said it.  No matter what you may think of them the number of cameras will increase.  They may be government installed, or shop CCTV, they may even be the webcam built into the monitor of the laptop or computer you’re using right now, but trust me there will be more cameras.
  • Cameras don’t make us safer.  Cameras are a tool in the arsenal of the Police and other services.  Unfortunately under Nu-Labour we’ve seen a shift to the crazy logic that automated systems farming our cash generating speeding tickets somehow makes us safer.  If you check the statistics provided by the Government themselves you’ll find this hasn’t been the case, but it has raised a hell of a lot of money in stealth taxes.  A camera on its own is just a piece of kit, it needs somebody reviewing the data and deciding which is actionable to make it useful.  You can automate some of this process, but at the end of the day you’re only as good as the man watching the cameras.
  • Cameras collect a lot of data and data needs storing.  This is my biggest problem with any Government planned scheme.  Based on prior performance I wouldn’t trust the Government to store vast amounts of new data about me, they can’t hold on to the data they’ve got without losing it in taxis, leaving it on trains, or accidentally forgetting to delete it from old hard drives.  Once data is stored the question is who has access to it?  I want to know what information they’ve logged about me, do I have access?  Do I have the right to know? Well the answer to that one should be yes, but as we’ve seen with the expenses scandal “right to know” and actually telling us the honest facts seem to mean two different things to most MPs.

So now we get to my concerns:

  • Everyone gets tracked.  The system identifies every licence plate it sees, and logs where and when it was seen.  This data is then stored for 2 years.  So ignoring the obvious Police use-cases, if this data is available to other Government agencies and departments they can track where you went (on major road networks) and as the plan is to store this data for 2 years, they’ll be able to do this for every trip you make within a two year period.  Seems an odd thing to need to do, track the journeys of people without criminal records who are in vehicles not of interest to the Police.
  • The key is the licence plate.  Yay, guilty because a small plastic tag with letters on it states you are.  So stealing a few plates and swapping them as you commit crime is going to make the Police’s job that bit more difficult, and James Bond’s DB5 with the rotating licence plates is a real nightmare to track.  Remember that licence plates get cloned, and even better the camera doesn’t have the best eyesight ever.  Take for example the Derbyshire farmer who regularly gets London congestion charge bills for his tractor.

All told this will come to pass.  The system will be regulated in shady, half documented ways, and we’ll all just have to hope that the programmers did a good job, the camera lenses remain clean and focus sharply, and that the Government/Police maintainers of the system don’t farm it out to the lowest bidder for running and maintenance.  Whoops, this is the Government I’m talking about, I’d expect them to do all of the above.

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