< Back to Blog

Are we going backwards?

May 20, 2024 by Alistair Enser

I was so surprised by something I read last week that I had to go back and read it again. The UK’s Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner, Professor Fraser Sampson, who is also chair of the ANPR Independent Advisory Group, has come out against the use of ANPR to enforce the expansion of the Ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) around London.

Grey sky thinking

The ULEZ was introduced in 2019 as a measure to clean up the air around our capital city by encouraging motorists to adopt greener vehicles and lower vehicle-related emissions. Few could argue about the importance of cleaning up our skies: in 2019, 5.1% of deaths in England were attributable to fine particle air pollution, equivalent to around 25,000 deaths of people aged over 30 each year.

The threat of irreversible climate change, meanwhile, has been made only too clear this summer, as temperatures across large parts of the world rose to dangerous levels, bringing wildfires, water shortages and the collapse of agricultural crops.

So while the ULEZ does represent yet another cost for hard-pressed motorists, the measure is supported by pretty much everyone, including the Commissioner, who told the Telegraph that he “supports government policies surrounding reducing emissions and encouraging drivers to switch to more environmentally-friendly vehicles.”

However, he warned that “members of the ANPR Independent Advisory Group (IAG) which I chair have expressed concerns that an extension of ANPR functions is not justified and there is limited evidence that it would benefit society.”

Professor Sampson also argued that, as ANPR was not initially introduced to target high-polluting vehicles, its proposed use to support the ULEZ should not be permitted. The Surveillance Camera Code, which is enshrined in law, does indeed say that:

“The surveillance camera system should only be used in a public place for the specific purpose or purposes it was established to address. It should not be used for other purposes that would not have justified its establishment in the first place.” (My italics)

In which case, I am left to wonder if this is an instance where the law is an ass?

A clear use case

We can’t legislate for everything. Equally, once a technology has been invented, it can’t be un-invented: the genie will not go back into the lamp. A level of maturity is therefore required.

I recognise there is a valid debate around the extent of the ULEZ and the cost for entering it. But why on earth wouldn’t ANPR be a suitable means for automating and enforcing the zone? If this isn’t a suitable use of ANPR (bearing in mind that it only captures the vehicle’s licence plate, nothing else), I simply don’t know what is.

And if enforcing the ULEZ is not a suitable application for ANPR, what precisely is the alternative on offer? Could we see the return of the AA man in his booth, clipboard in hand, as he checks every car that passes? Do we clone a battalion of Greta Thunbergs to sit at the side of nearly every road inside the M25 to look up vehicle licence plates on their phones? How about we recruit another 13,000 police officers and position them on every road in London, whistle at hand to stop those who haven’t paid their ULEZ fee?

At a time when the country faces eye-watering inflation, a shortage of workers, rising energy prices and lower public spending, is now really the right time to dismiss an innovative use of technology to create efficiency, help meet climate change objectives and free up limited resources for other purposes? I don’t think so. And neither does the government. In a report published this week, they positively supported the use of technology, effectively dismissing the Lords investigation, which challenged the use of biometrics by police. Their quote states, “it is important to retain a long-term perspective.”

Back to sticks and stones?

It is the nature of technology that we find new and innovative uses for it. And while we must always do so with privacy and civil liberties in mind, the unnecessarily rigid guidance that the original purpose must always be adhered to is simply unrealistic.

Professor Sampson asks whether “people still be as accepting of ANPR once it can recognise the occupants of a moving vehicle, identifying their children, when and where they got their flu jabs, their passport and if they’ve paid their tax bill?’”

Yet absolutely no one is suggesting the ULEZ cameras are used for this purpose. The risk of potential mission creep should not hold back the adoption of technology when we face so many challenges today, and in any case, there is plenty of legislation to prevent that from happening.

What people want

In the same article, Professor Sampson also “pointed to the use of ANPR to identify those breaking lockdown rules during the pandemic. He questioned how the use had affected communities and the public’s confidence, saying, ‘we should probably find out.’”

Well, we did find out. At the height of the pandemic, I ran a survey on LinkedIn and asked whether people would support the use of video technology to enforce tiered lockdown restrictions. Nearly eight in ten (79%) respondents supported the use of Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) to track drivers entering or leaving a high-risk area. A massive 88% of respondents believed that tracking users by mobile phone or their cars by ANPR would drive positive behaviour and reduce the spread of infection.

While we must anticipate any potential misuse of technology, there is a danger in assuming that people are against the broader use of technology to make their lives better. Numerous surveys have shown there is widespread support for the use of CCTV to maintain safety – something that is only made too apparent when it is used to identify a suspect when a murder or child abduction shocks the public. No one questions the use of video then.

At Reliance High Tech, we pride ourselves on taking existing technology and repurposing it to create value and efficiency in use cases that may not have been imagined. That’s called innovation. And while the UK lags well behind its peers in terms of productivity, that innovation is sorely needed. While the rest of the world seeks technological solutions to pressing problems, are we really going to dismiss them out of hand? Having made so many technological advances because of the pandemic, are we now deciding to go backwards?

If we can’t even agree on using cameras to capture number plates, then we might as well forget about potential technological solutions to climate change like carbon capture or hydrogen fuel sources. We should go back to our caves and play with sticks and stones.