Monday, January 18, 2010

Horror stories from the database state

The Independent today has a frightening piece on the way the UK's Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) database is being abused by police. Introduced originally to fight terrorism by tracking everyone, everywhere, the ANPR database's record of every vehicle in the UK is now being used to meet arrest quotas and raise revenue:

This target culture has allegedly led to unethical practices during roadside stops, according to concerned police sources. Some officers, they say, trawl through drivers' personal data on police databases to find any reason to arrest. Alternatively, they "wind up" motorists who, in their frustration, become abusive and are then arrested for a public-order offence.

"In short, officers do not have a complete understanding of the law, use flawed databases to justify immediate seizures, fail to adequately research and evidence the basis of their belief and almost certainly knowingly seize vehicles just to satisfy service and personal performance targets," one said.

Defects in the database have already led, in at least one case, to dangerous practices. In 2008, 16-year-old Hayley Adamson was killed by a Northumberland police officer responding at high speed to incorrect information on the ANPR. The officer was jailed last year.

Worse, 30% of the data in ANPR is inaccurate, leading to innocent people being victimised by police. In one case a woman who had asked police for help with domestic violence instead had her car seized because ANPR said it was uninsured - despite presenting them with the full insurance details on the spot. Police believed the dodgy database rather than the hard evidence presented to them - partly it seems because they had quotas to meet.

The effect of this on public confidence and trust in the police is utterly corrosive. But it should also cause us to be a lot more suspicious about their claims that new technology will only be used to fight terrorism and that it will not be abused. It won't, and it will - and this means that we should be very cautious indeed about giving police such tools.