Privacy concerns have been raised after it emerged that London’s cops could be given access to hundreds of thousands of images of London drivers and their passengers every day without any public consultation.
Earlier this year Mayor Boris Johnson delivered on a 2012 manifesto pledge to allow the Met direct access to data collected by cameras installed to enforce London’s congestion charge zone.
Officers were previously required to make separate requests each time they required access to this data and the Mayor’s pledge was aimed at speeding up access while cutting costs for the force and boosting public safety.
Despite the change appearing in his manifesto, Mr Johnson commissioned a public consultation after officials warned that opening up the camera network to the Met could prove controversial with some communities.
A majority of the 562,000 taking part in the consultation said they backed the policy, and in May the Mayor announced the Met would be given access to licence plate data collected by the camera network to help “track down more criminals and help drive down crime in London.”
A press release issued by the Mayor’s office referred to the Met gaining “information” and “data” collected by the cameras rather than images.
This was consistent with an internal Scotland Yard assessment drawn up before the change came into effect which said the the force would receive “a continuous feed of alpha numeric characters derived from the vehicle registration marks (VRMs) captured by the TfL ANPR camera system(s).”
The document added: “The data transferred to the MPS by TfL does not include whole of vehicle (overview) photos or number plate (plate patch) photos, albeit this is collected by TfL and is a component of most Police ANPR data.”
However it went on to say: “Access to these images may be considered in the future.”
It’s now emerged that these images, which the Met could legally store for up to two years rather than the 28 days Transport for London is limited to, could be provided to the force without any further public debate or consultation.
Questioned about the Met’s apparent interest in future access to the images, Mayor Johnson told London Assembly member Baroness Jenny Jones: “I carried out an extensive and wide-ranging public consultation with Londoners around my manifesto pledge to direct TfL to share access to ANPR cameras with the MPS for crime fighting.
“That consultation suggested that this may eventually include images. Images are not currently transferred due to technical limitations but improving technology means this may be overcome in the future.
“The great majority of Londoners supported my proposal and it has been implemented.”
However the Mayor’s claim that the “consultation suggested that this may eventually include images” appears to be contradicted by the the Met’s assessment document and an internal City Hall report detailing three separate pieces of public research and consultation carried out by the Mayor’s officials.
Both documents refer to consultation participants being asked about ANPR “data” being transferred to the Met, with no specific mention of images.
According to the City Hall report, a telephone poll of 1,000 Londoners asked: “TfL have around 1400 cameras on major roads, collecting number plate data which is currently used for identifying vehicles to receive congestion and low emission zone charges. In an effort to crack down on crime and track known offenders the police would like to be able to use this data too.
“Do you think the police should or should not be given access to data collected by these cameras?”
Data, rather than images, was also mentioned in an online survey carried out in September 2013 in which participants were asked:
Efficiency and savings:
1. To what extent do you agree or disagree that the Mayor ensures public organisations such as TfL and the Met Police work together and share information to improve efficiency and save money? [Strongly agree to strongly disagree]
Confidence in policing:
2. Taking everything into account, to what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statements?
a) I have a lot of confidence in the police in London
b) The met police use modern technologies
[Strongly agree, agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree, strongly disagree]
Existing expectations of camera data use:
3. Transport for London uses cameras that automatically recognise vehicle number plates (ANPR cameras) to enforce the Congestion Charge and Low Emission Zones. How much access do you think the Metropolitan Police currently has to these cameras to help them tackle crime?
• Full access at all times
• Access for most crimes, but not less serious crime
• Access only for the most serious crimes
• No access at all
Knowledge of and support for changes:
4. TfL have around 1400 cameras on major roads in London, collecting vehicle number plate data which is currently used to enforce congestion and low emission zone charges.
A) Had you heard that the police in London would like more access to Transport for London’s number plate recognition cameras to help them fight crime?
B) Do you think the police should or should not have access to data collected by these cameras to help them tackle crime?
Yes – probably
No – probably not
No – definitely not
A further consultation carried out in February 2014 asked the public:
1. To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statements:
a) The Mayor ensures public organisations such as TfL and the Met Police work together and share information to improve efficiency and save money
b) The met police use modern technologies
– Strongly agree
– Tend to agree
– Tend to disagree
– Strongly disagree
2. Transport for London uses cameras that automatically recognise vehicle number plates (ANPR cameras) to enforce the Congestion Charge and Low Emission Zones. How much access do you think the Metropolitan Police currently has to these cameras to help them tackle crime?
– Full access at all times
– Access for most crimes, but not less serious crime
– Access only for the most serious crimes
No access at all
3. TfL have around 1400 cameras on major roads in London, collecting vehicle number plate data which is currently used to enforce congestion and low emission zone charges.
a) Had you heard that the police in London would like more access to Transport for
London’s number plate recognition cameras to help them fight crime? [Yes/No]
b) Do you think the police should or should not have access to data collected by these cameras to help them tackle crime?
– Yes definitely
– Yes probably
– No, probably not
No, definitely not
Any move to provide the Met with images taken by TfL’s camera network could cause public concern as the City Hall report warned of “a general feeling that the ever increasing ability of the authorities to observe the public impinges on their freedom to live their lives in private.
“Some people refuted the assertion that if you have done nothing wrong you have nothing to fear and suggested that they simply have the right not to be watched.”
Consultation participants also expressed concern that even providing the Met with the licence plate data constituted mission creep “with some feeling that this step to change the purpose of use of the data from congestion charging to crime use was just the first step of a stealthy creep towards it being made available for other uses too.”
Baroness Jones said there were “big implications for privacy” in providing the Met with all imagery collected by the cameras and that such a move should not be considered “without the public being consulted first.”
She commented: “Facial recognition technology is about to transform the way that the police function and allow them to track the everyday lives of Londoners.
“I can see why the police might need access to specific film of an incident, such as a car crash, which is subject to a criminal investigation.
“However, this is Transport for London handing over their complete camera network, which has big implications for privacy and we should pause before we rush into it.”