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Devon and Cornwall Police will fight ruling on location of car-tracking cameras

By This is Cornwall  |  Posted: May 11, 2011

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Devon and Cornwall Police could be forced to reveal the locations of its secret car-tracking cameras after a landmark information rights ruling.

Senior officers warned that exposing its covert network of automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras would put the public "at risk" and damage investigations into organised crime. It is also feared that the ruling could lead to other forces being ordered to release the information, creating a national map of cameras which could undermine counter-terrorism operations.

"ANPR has been a fantastic weapon in our fight against crime," one senior Devon and Cornwall Police officer told the Western Morning News.

"It has been a huge success, particularly in taking millions of pounds worth of drugs off the streets. If we are forced to reveal their locations, then other forces will have to follow, and that raises serious issues particularly around counter terrorism.

"Giving away that level of detail is frankly ridiculous. It will put the public at risk."

The locations of the static cameras – which "read" number plates and rapidly compare them against "hotlist" databases – has always been a jealously-guarded secret. Devon and Cornwall Police has admitted it operates 69 cameras, split between fixed sites and vehicles, which "read" almost 79 million plates last year.

The network has delivered some spectacular successes, most notably in the fight against illegal drugs.

Only last month, police successfully dismantled a major drugs gang which supplied more than a million pounds worth of cocaine to the Westcountry. The smuggling ring – including Stephen Procter, 38, of Ashford Road, Plymouth, and 41-year-old Shaun Battle, 41, of The Down in Bere Alston, Devon – only unravelled after one of the gang was "pinged" by an ANPR camera for failing to insure his car.

Courier Christopher Leader was stopped by officers on the M5 in Devon in August 2009. Inside the car, police found five kilos of cocaine worth £250,000.

The cameras, though, have proved highly controversial, with MPs complaining that the roadside network had been expanded "by stealth".

Civil liberties groups have also warned they could be used "as a tool of mass surveillance" with records – even for innocent motorists – being kept on a police database for a minimum of two years. It means motorists who routinely pass ANPR cameras, which are known to monitor main routes such as the A30, A38 and M5, will be on the police database for life.

The locations of the cameras were requested under the Freedom of Information Act by Steven Mathieson, news editor at Guardian Government Computing, in July 2009.

The force refused on the grounds that it revealed where they were stationed would "be likely to prejudice the prevention of crime". It also blocked the move after an internal review, a decision which was supported by the Information Commissioner.

Mr Mathieson then appealed to the Information Rights Tribunal which last month found in his favour, ordering that the information be disclosed within 35 days. Its ruling said: "The tribunal considers that there was, overall, a weak case made by the additional party (Devon and Cornwall Police) as to why it thought that disclosure of the information sought would be likely to prejudice policing."

It added: "The tribunal considers that in all the circumstances, the public interest falls on the side of disclosure in this case, so as to allow for debate about the strategic use of the cameras and the reasons for their deployment."

The decision is known to have raised major concerns within the Association of Chief Police Officers and particularly for the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Devon and Cornwall Police have now confirmed they are seeking leave to challenge the ruling in the Court of Appeal while the battle could ultimately be decided in the Supreme Court.

A spokesman said: "The force believes that revealing the exact location of ANPR sites will seriously reduce their impact as a crime fighting tool in identifying suspects and offenders. There is no doubt that since the advent of ANPR the police's ability to proactively target criminals on the road network has increased dramatically.

"Showing a criminal the exact location of a camera will make those cameras easier to avoid and thus make capturing criminals more difficult. While the force accepts the need for transparency and the public's right to information whenever possible, revealing the location of covert policing resources goes far and beyond this."

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    max power, st austell  |  May 15 2011, 10:39PM

    A valuable tool in the fight against crime, but we should consider this: ''Police whistleblowers also claim that intelligence stored on the national Automatic Number Plate Recognition'(ANPR) database is "at least 30 per cent inaccurate", which has led to the wrongful arrest of innocent motorists and the seizure of their cars''. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/the-laughing-policemen-inaccurate-data-boosts-arrest-rate-1870416.html ..there was a case of a journalist who wrote a similar article and was added to the database as a high risk driver with the intention of securing an arrest... and this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regulation_of_Investigatory_Powers_Act_2000 1984 indeed

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    robert, Cornwall  |  May 15 2011, 12:48PM

    As a pensioner who has had been at the receiving end of thieves three times in 3 years with very little support from the police ( I don¿t bother to report any more),what are the police doing spending more of our money on cameras. If they really want to monitor the motorist then why do they not think and ask. ' What does every motorist need?' The answer FUEL. Every car needs to visit a garage, every garage have cameras already. If we still had local Bobbies as part of our community then I am sure it could be arranged with the filling station companies to allow the local bobby to visit his local garage, and be in the back office for a few hours every now and then and monitor the garage cameras. If wrong doers come in for fuel when they come to pay the bobby could step out and make the arrest. The Police would save the money of more camera and cars. The Garages would have the advantage of a police presents once in a while. The wrong doer would never know which garage to go to. We may all again see Bobbies around and the Police becoming part of our community again. One last thought this might make the wrong doers store fuel but if I know someone who was storing fuel I could report it to the local police Station if I had one!

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    Jim, Cornwall  |  May 14 2011, 7:47PM

    Why do the police need a separate database to that held by DVLA, which surely already holds all the details necessary, and can be accessed by police when necessary? Or is it that they really are using these cameras to spy on the movements of people without having to justify their actions to anyone?

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    The Innocent Bystander, Cornwall  |  May 13 2011, 6:32PM

    I think that it is wise to keep secret or covert ANPR location undisclosed. There are many people that need to learn valuable lessons when they are up to no good. Lets hope the average law abiding motorist are not impacted.

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    The Innocent Bystander, Cornwall  |  May 13 2011, 6:29PM

    I think it is wise that secret and covert locations are not disclosed. There are different people in society that need to be tracked by the police like this. Lets hope it does not impact the average law abiding motorist.

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    chris lamb, falmouth  |  May 13 2011, 5:33PM

    Well I really don't understand all this nonsense. What the hell is the problem with having these cameras? What exactly is everyone worried about? So your no. plate is seen on camera... oh no...Somebody call the European Court of Human Rights! How dare anyone look at my no. plate! Surely the only people that are bothered about these cameras are people with something to hide or crazy human rights campaigners. The way things are going, criminals will soon be able to get away with everything because putting them in prison will be against their human rights. By the way, what is "counter-terrorism"? Is that like when you put a bomb in the till at your local shop? IT'S ANTI-TERRORISM you Americanised idiots!!!! Oh and Steve, you ***, the cameras OBVIOUSLY DO work, hence: "ANPR has been a fantastic weapon in our fight against crime," and: "It has been a huge success, particularly in taking millions of pounds worth of drugs off the streets." And Geoff, you other complete ***, yeah, let's have your examples.

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    Somhairle, Highlands  |  May 13 2011, 8:55AM

    @ David, St Austell I for one do not give a stuff about the criminals, if they are guilty, and believe that they have foregone any rights when they have committed their crimes. However, I also believe in the premise of 'innocent until proven guilty' and hidden cameras, covert surveillance etc. make the assumption that we are all guilty and about to commit some crime or other. We should not be under constant surveillance, as if we were in some communist state and the potential for misuse of the information gained is far too great. For all the people who think that 'if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear', then what will happen if the information is misused, or we get another government as intent on control as the last one?

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    Matt, Newquay  |  May 12 2011, 3:07PM

    "Running around like yobs in uniform" - C'mon then Geoff, give us your examples.

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    David, St Austell  |  May 11 2011, 10:51PM

    Steve and geoff I hope for your sake you are not the victims of a crime that could have been prevented by these cameras. All those who bleat about human rights etc do not consider the victims of crime they only seem to be concerned about the criminals. The more criminals caught by covert cameras the better and keep them secret.

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    Geoff, Newquay  |  May 11 2011, 7:23PM

    We already have an out of control police force in D&C who think they can do what they like running around like yobs in uniform, so take their toys away. (and yes I can give examples if asked)