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." 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 viewers used to such shenanigans in our cop shows, Traffic Cops (and its spin-off, Motorway Cops) can seem downright boring.
Sure, you get the occasional familiar chase-run-tackle sequence. But thanks to strict national restrictions on engaging in high-speed chases, pursuits often end with 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. 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 the whereabouts of more than half of Britain's population of 65 million.
Because of various other British regulations surrounding driving, ANPR can determine, within moments, the license, insurance, tax, and inspection status of every car it sees. When the system spots a violation, it alerts the traffic cops.
Even minus a lot of aggressive door busting, that's a worrying future-that-might-be of mass surveillance in America.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Traffic Cops".