License Plate Cameras

This Boring British Cops Clone May Show the Future of American Mass Surveillance

Mass surveillance is up and running on Britain's roads. Will ours be next?

|

Wikimedia Commons

BBC's popular reality show Traffic Cops is not so far from what a stereotype-inclined American might imagine if told "it's like Cops, but British." It also shows a worrying future-that-might-be of mass surveillance in America.

Traffic Cops may not be a montage of helmeted and mustachioed bobbies puffing after pickpocketing orphans on cobblestoned streets. But to American eyes, the constables of Traffic Cops do seem terribly proper and polite. Compared to the show's ever-controversial American cousin, there's very little shouting, wrestling, cracking of skulls, or brandishing of firearms.

In fact, to Americans used to seeing copious amounts of such activities in our cop shows, Traffic Cops (and its spinoff, Motorway Cops) can seem downright boring. Sure, you get the occasional familiar chase-bail-run-tackle sequence. But thanks to strict national restrictions on engaging in high-speed chases, pursuits often end with the cops taking down a plate number and letting the fugitive drive away.

This might sound like a pleasant alternative to American civil libertarians, but there's a sinister twist that sours the picture: mass surveillance. The really boring thing about the show is how much time the constables spend just waiting for alerts from Britain's driver surveillance network to pop up on their squad-car screens.

Some background: Britain's major roads are among the most heavily surveilled on earth. Every day, more than 8,500 Automated Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) devices placed along the country's roads and in police vehicles read and store the location of between 25 and 35 million license plates, potentially capturing more than half of Britain's entire population of 65 million.

Driving in the United Kingdom is also regulated more heavily than in many parts of the U.S. In addition to being licensed and insured, British drivers must pay an annual per-vehicle excise tax meant to discourage private car ownership. The Ministry of Transportation is also supposed to inspect each car annually for compliance with environmental standards.

The Ministry of Transporation and the United Kingdom's tax collection service share all their vehicle data with a vast law enforcement data management system called the Police National Computer (PNC). All private car insurers are required to do this as well.

And the PNC is connected, of course, to the ANPR network. As such, the ANPR cameras are able to determine, within moments, the license, insurance, tax, and inspection status of every car they see. When the system spots a violation, it alerts the Traffic Cops.

Occasionally, the ANPR helps the cops recover a stolen vehicle or locate a missing person. At other times it flags cars "known to be associated with drugs," cars possessed by people with unpaid tax debt, and cars whose owners have a history of "anti-social driving," whatever that is.

But the great majority of the infractions it uncovers seem to involve skirting the high costs of compliance with Britain's burdensome driving regulation scheme. To judge from the show, the typical penalty seems to be a stiff fine and seizure of the car—a punishment the cops readily explain (with exquisite politeness) is imposed purely as a deterrent.

In straight-to-camera bits filmed in the backs of police cars, "outlaw drivers" often confess that they haven't paid their road tax or renewed their inspection because they can't afford to, but still need to drive to get to work, take children to school, and so on. The cops nod sympathetically while writing out the ticket and calling the tow truck. These encounters typically end with frustrated driver and passenger standing by the side of the road as the constable, driving off, shakes his head sadly and reminds the audience that "driving is a privilege, not a right."

What's perhaps most unsettling about this routine is how mundane it all is. The whole process, played out time and time again onscreen, is swift, sanitary, official, and polite. There's an insight here on how a whole nation quietly acquiesced to such snooping. Not only is it "for your safety," it's just really, really dull.

Will America's roads be this surveilled some day? Don't assume it can't happen. Forty-one states already use some form of license plate reader technology, often storing the data they collect in databases that other agencies can access. If those systems were to become a British-style integrated spying system, the results would probably look a lot like Traffic Cops.

NEXT: The Dubious Legal Claim Behind #ReleaseTheMemo

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. In addition to being licensed and insured, British drivers must pay an annual per-vehicle excise tax meant to discourage private car ownership. The Ministry of Transportation is also supposed to inspect each car annually for compliance with environmental standards

    Sounds like some US states that have vehicle taxes and an annual inspections requirement.

    1. California has a car tax that is proportional to value. Definitely a tax but not really designed to discourage ownership.

      Auto taxes in Europe are ridiculous. Basically doubles the price of the car.

      1. Plus German car inspection is ridiculously thorough, at least when I was in Germany in the military. Cars just 5-6 years old couldn’t pass the inspection, which mean a great market for cheap cars for us GIs. But it sucked for German car owners. And the natives I spoke with mentioned that getting a license costs a fortune because of the driver training classes.

        1. We had a German exchange student for a year; became a third daughter and remains so to this day, Her family was, more than anything, keen on her getting all of her drivers education and permits while here so she could just transfer her license when she returned home. Somehow it all worked out to their advantage.

      2. California has a car tax that is proportional to value.

        Many states do this. Some are when you buy a new car or move into the state and others are annual.

        It’s the worst when you move to a new state and then when you go to register your car, bam $1000+ please!

        1. Except they don’t say please.

          1. Except I can skirt those laws fairly easily by continuing to register that vehicle in the State I was from. The odd’s of getting ‘busted’ for that are virtually nil.

  2. There’s an insight here on how a whole nation quietly acquiesced to such snooping. Not only is it “for your safety,” it’s just really, really dull.

    That’s known as the banality of evil.

    1. Hannah Arendt! A socialist, but a good lady nonetheless.

  3. Britain is a brave new world.

    1. More like 1984 with ubiquitous surveillance.

  4. It was shown… like back in the 90s, that London’s pervasive camera system could follow a single person home during his entire trip, and then continue to monitor them through the windows of their house.

    This is nothing new, and the Brits rolled over for this a long, long time ago. You know, polite society and all.

    1. Good thing it can’t happen here.

      1. When it happens here we’ll include remote-controlled sniper rifles, so the cops can take out any drivers making furtive movements.

        1. Dogs will be most affected.

          1. I believe cops prefer to handle dog shooting the old fashioned way.

    2. Honestly, it will probably happen here. Not in any big move but slow mission creep. This system is added to that while this program is added to automatically read his which will automatically update that, etc.

      The U.K. system is pretty ingenuous and makes total sense if you are going for efficiency of policing. A little disconcerting though.

  5. Britain is already deep into the dystopian future. They are pushing ‘mental illness’ propaganda relentlessly, such as specials on anorexia and autism and a bunch of other things. I was in London a few months ago and you see it everywhere. For example, the local movie ‘theatre’ has relaxed screenings for kids with ‘sensitivities’. Note this is Lady Bird – which is industrial grade mental illness pablum.

    1. Maybe this explains why it took a Brit to create “Black Mirror.”

  6. Don’t worry, it could never happen here.

    1. PA has already eliminated registration stickers for your license plate. For two reasons:

      It will save a couple million bucks for the state not having to print them. Which is fine.

      State officials fully expect plate readers to be on all cop cars in the near future, making the stickers irrelevant. Which is less fine.

    2. Right, globalization will fix it.

      1. So will giraffe-colored rugs.

    3. “Will America’s roads be this surveilled some day? Don’t assume it can’t happen. Forty-one states already use some form of license plate reader technology”

      Actually, that’s understating the progress towards this surveillance dream. You also have to add in the tag readers that detect your toll tag (which are becoming steadily more common as more roads are converted to toll roads). Also, you have to include the bluetooth readers that pickup on the signal from your phone. Sure, those are only for monitoring traffic speed and aren’t supposed to save identifying info, but promises about that are only as good as the ones making the promise. Next it will be dash units that will be required in the next decade or so for passing info between vehicles and to roadside data collection.

      We’re really just kidding ourselves if we think that this won’t be the norm over the next 5-10 years.


      1. We’re really just kidding ourselves if we think that this won’t be the norm over the next 5-10 years.

        Agreed. We’re already most of the way there, in fact. It’s also the impetus behind trying to make cars drive themselves which would be a palatable way to make human driving functionally illegal.

  7. Wouldn’t it be easier just to require would-be motorists to swipe a credit card at the license office and allow the state to automatically deduct whatever payments are necessary for compliance? It’s like some of the cops here who carry the credit card machines where you can pay your traffic fine right on the spot – if they’ve already got your number on file they don’t even have to come looking for you when they need a few bucks.

  8. “anti-social driving,” whatever that is.

    Refusing to pass the Grey Poupon, probably.

  9. In addition to being licensed and insured, British drivers must pay an annual per-vehicle excise tax meant to discourage private car ownership among the lower classes.

    FTFY


  10. Sure, you get the occasional familiar chase-bail-run-tackle sequence. But thanks to strict national restrictions on engaging in high-speed chases, pursuits often end with the cops taking down a plate number and letting the fugitive drive away.

    And of course there’s the fact that it’s a tiny little island which means that, you know, there’s a real geographical boundary across which that motor vehicle will have some serious sinking problems.

  11. License plate scanners and cameras all over are inevitable. What bothers me is the cops using it in secret for their own amusement and nefarious ends.

    But it won’t be long before ordinary people do this too. First, companies will scan facebook etc for license plates, and note who was where when with whom. Then ordinary people will do it. I bet within 20 years, all this license plate knowledge will be common public knowledge, free or really cheap.

    The ones who have the most to fear are politicians and their cronies. There will be websites reporting on the interesting coincidences of which politicians and cronies were in the same parking lot just days before certain interesting bills were voted on or introduced. THEN politicians will be worried about it, and it will be too late. I would rather live in that world, where politicians and cronies fear inevitable public exposure, than this, where cops have that info but no one else does.

  12. This is why we only need White anglo immigrants because theyre the only ones who appreciate limited government principles. Oh wait this is in Britain? I thought white ppl were inherently pro libertarian… I guess Trump and his followers are wrong again.

  13. Jujur, itu mungkin akan terjadi di sini. Tidak dalam gerakan besar tetapi creep misi yang lambat. Sistem ini ditambahkan ke bahwa sementara program ini ditambahkan untuk secara otomatis membaca yang akan secara otomatis memperbarui itu, dll.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.