Devon and Cornwall police are fighting to keep the locations of their fleet of Automatic Number Plate Recognition a closely guarded secret, despite a landmark ruling demanding they release the information within 35 days. Senior officers have used the excuse that exposing the information would put the public “at risk” and affect investigations into organised crime.
Steven Mathieson, the news editor at Guardian Government Computing sent a Freedom of Information (FOI) request in July 2009 asking for the location of the cameras. The police force refused, claiming that revealing where they had been placed would "be likely to prejudice the prevention of crime”. Mr. Mathieson then appealed to the Information Rights Tribunal, which found in his favour last month and decided on the 35 day limit for disclosure. Their ruling stated:
"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."
"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 police consider revealing this level of detail to be “frankly ridiculous” and may put the public at risk, but they offer no explanation as to why. The 69 ANPR cameras under the control of Devon and Cornwall Police have recorded the movement of almost 79 million vehicles in the last year alone. This data is then stored on a central database for years, allowing mass surveillance of millions of innocent people. Despite the concerns of MPs and civil liberty groups such as Big Brother Watch, the police still insist on expanding the network by stealth. A spokesman for Devon and Cornwall Police 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."
This ruling could potentially change the landscape of CCTV in the country. Residents have been relatively unfazed by ANPR cameras so far, largely because they have been installed quietly with little fanfare and virtually no public consultation. If all police forces around the country are forced to reveal the quantity of cameras and their locations, detailing the giant network that now exists to track the movements of tens of millions of innocent people, public opinion may force the police to stop the proliferation of cameras. Devon and Cornwall Police are now looking to challenge the ruling in the Court of Appeal, while ultimately the legal battle could reach the Supreme Court. We will be watching developments closely.