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.