Exclusive: the UK’s ANPR camera network exposed

We take a look at the thousands of ANPR cameras that help keep UK roads safe, but also issue millions of penalties

Police and councils are tracking motorists using automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras that, last year alone, carried out 10.1 billion number plate scans across the length and breadth of the country, generating 203 million ‘hits’ on vehicles of interest in the process.

While the police use ANPR cameras to track and trace criminals, local councils in England, Scotland and Wales are adopting the technology for traffic and parking infractions, issuing 6.96 million penalty tickets over the past five years, generating fines equivalent to around £472million.

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Privacy campaigners are concerned that the widespread use of ANPR technology amounts to the mass surveillance of innocent citizens. Silkie Carlo, director of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch, said our figures, uncovered following freedom of information requests, “reveal the astonishing scale of secretive ANPR surveillance in the UK”. Carlo added “there is no clear legal basis” for the UK’s ANPR network, and that it represents “constant monitoring of innocent motorists”.

Carlo isn’t alone in having misgivings, either. At the start of the year, Tony Porter, the Government’s surveillance camera commissioner, warned that the UK’s ANPR network operates with “limited democratic oversight” and the system “must surely be one of the largest data gatherers of its citizens in the world” – although he recognised the vital crime-fighting role the camera network plays.

How do ANPR cameras work

ANPR cameras use optical character recognition to convert number plates to digital text, which can then be cross-checked against national police and driver databases. While early devices were expensive and hard to configure, modern systems can be integrated into CCTV cameras, and run on a PC. ANPR cameras are available for less than £200 online, although pro systems are pricier.

The number of ANPR cameras operated is modest compared with the number of plates they scan. Highways England, the police forces and councils that responded to our Freedom of Information requests told us 8,768 ANPR cams are active nationally.

Police ANPR cameras 

The police’s ANPR cameras are certainly busy: constabularies are required by national guidelines to erase ANPR data after storing it for 12 months, and the 6,094 cameras operated by the 31 police forces that provided data following our requests (some declined on security grounds) carried out 10.1 billion number-plate scans in 2018, with those scans resulting in 201 million hits on vehicles of interest.

Of those ‘hits’, Dorset Police told us roughly 85 per cent were for cars with no registered keeper or no road tax when cross-checked against DVLA records, and Wiltshire Police put the figure at 91 per cent. But officers say a single vehicle would generate a series of hits on one journey. 

Top 10 ANPR-scanning police forces

Force  Scans per year Number of hits on vehicles of interest* Number of ANPR cameras West Midlands 896,785,269 23,983,701 308 Thames Valley 780,734,346 14,388,461 359 Cheshire 773,010,999 20,790,909 317 South Yorkshire 726,867,269 186,729 Declined to list Surrey 584,000,000 1,139,114 292 Merseyside 550,689,769 364,734 297 Lancashire 520,314,326 14,344,069 150 West Mercia 447,167,232 819,420 208 Wiltshire 445,313,100 15,277,015 182 Dyfed-Powys 414,295,902 10,581,255 330 *Methods of classifcation vary between forces

Council ANPR cameras

Of the 114 local councils that told us they use ANPR tech, 65 said they did so to issue penalties to motorists for offences ranging from bus lane and parking contraventions to turning left or right at prohibited junctions and stopping in yellow boxes.

There are different levels of council penalty charge notices, which typically range from £40 to £130 depending on the type of offence, and wherein the UK the infraction took place. With 6.9 million penalties being issued over the past five years thanks to ANPR cameras, and the average PCN costing £68.50, authorities using the tech sent out fines equivalent to around £472million from 2014-2018 – although the income generated may reflect discounts offered for early payment.

ANPR-generated council fines over five years

Council Number of fines Estimated value of fines London Borough of Barnet 547,393 £38.3m Glasgow 566,598 £33.9m London Borough of Islington 397,624 £27.8m London Borough of Barking & Dagenham 345,589 £24.1m London Borough of Brent 312,031 £21.8m Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames 358,046 £21.4m City of London 316,369** £20.5m Leeds City Council 250,317 £15.0m Essex County Council 244,010 £14.6m Coventry City Council 270,596 £13.5m **Over 20 months

What the authorities say

Councillor Martin Tett from the Local Government Association said councils “make no apologies for enforcing the law” with ANPR cameras, and that surplus revenue generated from fines is spent on transport improvements. Tett added that over 99 per cent of parking and bus lane fines are not appealed, demonstrating “the overwhelming majority of people who are ticketed accept that they have broken the rules”.

A spokesperson from the National Police Chiefs’ Council told us ANPR is necessary to “better protect the public from harm and reduce crime”. The NPCC admitted this had to be balanced against “our responsibility to be as transparent as possible and protect individuals’ privacy”, and that “police will only get involved if there is a criminal issue arising as part of an automatic check”.

Do you think that ANPR cameras are a good idea? Let us know in the comments below…

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