UK Police's 'Ring Of Steel' Spying On Every Car Entering And Leaving Town Ruled Disproportionate
from the what-about-the-digital-ring-of-steel? dept
The UK is famous for its abundant CCTV cameras, but it’s also pretty keen on the equally intrusive Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras that can identify cars and hence their owners as they pass. Here, for example, is what’s been going on in the town of Royston, whose local police force has just had its knuckles rapped by the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) for the over-enthusiastic deployment of such ANPR systems there:
The use of these cameras has effectively made it impossible for anyone to drive their car in and out of Royston without a record being kept of the journey. The scheme is regularly referred to as ‘the ring of steel’.
Following a joint complaint about the scheme from the privacy groups Big Brother Watch, Privacy International and No CCTV, the ICO began an investigation to see whether the use of the cameras was justifiable and complied with the Data Protection Act. The ICO found that the constabulary failed to carry out any effective impact assessments before introducing the system of cameras. As a result it has not been able to give a satisfactory explanation to justify their use.
The ICO has now ruled that the collection of the information is unlawful — breaching principle one of the [Data Protection] Act — and excessive — breaching principle three. Hertfordshire Constabulary has been issued with an enforcement notice ordering the force to stop processing people’s information in this way, unless they can justify the ANPR cameras use by way of a proper privacy impact assessment, or similar such assessment.
This decision is welcome not just because it orders this disproportionate scheme to be halted, but also because it lays down a general principle of proportionality for surveillance. That’s particularly interesting in the context of the revelations that all the UK’s communications are being scooped up by GCHQ, the local version of the NSA. That other “ring of steel” hardly seems proportionate either, so the obvious question is whether it might be challenged on the same grounds mentioned in the enforcement notice from the ICO (pdf):
In particular, the Commissioner is mindful of the provisions of Article 8 of the ECHR [European Convention on Human Rights] in that licensed vehicle keepers have the right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence which has been unlawfully interfered with [by the police in Royston in this case].
Article 8 of the ECHR is as follows:
Article 8 — Right to respect for private and family life
1. Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.
2. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
It’s true there is the get-out clause “except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security”. But equally there is the important word “necessary”: is it really absolutely necessary that every single communication going into and out of the UK be spied upon for national security? It might be a question worth asking the European Court of Human Rights….