The police ANPR database, which the Guardian today reveals will retain information from 50 million road journeys a day for five years, is a system that was never sanctioned or debated in parliament and which threatens the freedom of movement, assembly and protest.
Presented simply as a tool to fight crime and terror by the police, it will become one of the cornerstones of the surveillance state, and will give the police far too much power to track, in real time, the movement of people who may be bound for legitimate demonstrations and protest rallies.
Linked with the government's proposals to seize all our communications data to be announced in the Queen's speech this autumn, this move signifies a profound change in our society and an irreversible transfer of power from free individuals to the state.
It is not difficult to imagine how the system will be used in times of industrial and political strife. We have already seen how police prevented legitimate demonstration during the first years of the Iraq war and have illegally obstructed protests against the arms trade, and are currently harassing accredited press photographers going about their legitimate business. These are hints of what will come when the police can track the movement of all vehicles, particularly if harsher economic times are accompanied by unrest.
The revelations in the Guardian today come from freedom of information requests made to the Home Office. In this context it is important to know that the dealings and discussions in Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), which has been largely responsible for pushing the ANPR system, remain hidden from public scrutiny. Because Acpo has limited company status and is not a public body, it does not have to comply with freedom of information laws.
Police officers keep on insisting that these powers will not be abused, but revelations made by another FOI request last week show that the police use surveillance techniques to bully and harass citizens. In Wales, a team of 11 officers took part in a surveillance operation against a 49-year-old police dog handler who claimed he was suffering from depression, a fact established by the Police Medical Appeal Board. Officers from two forces watched his home for months and filmed him at a cost of £100,000.
If the police have such little regard for the rights and privacy of one of their own, it's difficult to imagine that they will treat the public with any more respect.
The surveillance of all journeys is a very serious move indeed and it tells us a lot about how far Labour has advanced a state of total and unwavering surveillance; and also how little parliament has done to protect our rights. It seems incredible that the great issues of control and privacy that are obviously involved in the ANPR system were never discussed in parliament. That a secretive and unaccountable organisation like ACPO can press ahead behind parliament's back is a measure of our failed politics, at the very least of the failure of mechanisms of restraint and scrutiny.
In these days of enormous daily distractions – of freakish weather, banks failing and general economic turbulence – it is difficult to concentrate on the programme to convert Britain into a totally controlled and watched state. But we can all be sure that it is happening under our noses.
The penny has dropped with the Trades Union Congress, which will surely have much to say about the possibility of police watching and intercepting those on their way to take part in legitimate industrial action and protest.
Last week the TUC voted to resist the ID card scheme and consider legal action to uphold civil liberties. The move came after aviation workers – among the first group to be compelled to register for ID cards – placed a motion before congress. The motion states:
Congress sees absolutely no value in the scheme or in improvements to security that might flow from this exercise and feels that aviation workers are being used as pawns in a politically led process which might lead to individuals being denied the right to work because they are not registered or chose not to register in the scheme.
This represents a considerable victory for reason and democracy, and the important part is that the vote was not carried simply because the ID card might deny people the right to work. Broader civil liberties considerations were at the heart of this debate.
With parliament dead from the neck up when it comes to issues of liberty, it is difficult to know how the ANPR surveillance and the equally important proposal to seize data concerning all phone calls, text messages and internet connections, can be resisted. But resist we must if we are to save our free society.
From The Guardian website, by Henry Porter...