Police to use congestion cameras to hunt criminals

The Home Office is hoping to give real-time, bulk licence plate data collected by 1,500 London congestion charge cameras to the Metropolitan Police - and already gives similar information to anti-terror police.

Media reports across several newspapers said a leaked Home Office document detailed plans to send in bulk to the police all images collected by the automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras, which photograph and check plate numbers of vehicles, linking the cars to their drivers.

The Home Office today confirmed it considered such data sharing a wise move, but said no decision has yet been made. "We will develop proposals to be discussed across government to ensure that bulk ANPR data sharing with the police is subject to a robust regulatory framework which ensures public openness," the Home Office statement said. "No decision has yet been made on whether ANPR data from third parties should be made available in this way to the police for other crime fighting purposes. Such a decision would only be taken with wider consultation."

"The experience of the last few weeks has shown that this is a necessary tool to combat the threat of alleged vehicle-born terrorism," the statement added, referencing car bomb attacks in London and Glasgow at the end of June.

It was announced yesterday that the Home Office had applied for an exemption from the data privacy act to allow anti-terror police to access images from Transport for London's (TfL) congestion charge cameras to track potential terrorists - but not more standard criminals. Police minister Tony McNulty said: "The Met requires bulk ANPR data from TfL's camera network in London specifically for terrorism intelligence purposes and to prevent and investigate such offences."

Such function-creep - repurposing data and technology for other uses - has been widely criticised by privacy groups. On BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti said the Home Office should consider whether such privacy intrusions are truly necessary.

"I think with privacy we have to accept the principles interfering with my privacy are that this is truly necessary, proportionate and somehow regulated and safeguarded by law," she said.

"We're entitled to ask whether there are ways - if this is going to be an on-going matter which I suggest it might be with the threat from terrorism - in which this can become less of an automatic and permanent bulk transfer of very intrusive data," she added.