Britain, already the world's leader in video surveillance of its people, will soon be able to automatically track the movements of millions of cars on most of its major roads.
Law enforcement agencies are drastically increasing the number of cameras that read license plates and are building a national database that designers say will make it possible to determine in seconds whether a car zooming by has insurance, was stolen or was seen near a crime scene.
"It will revolutionize policing," said John Dean, the police's national coordinator of the Automatic Number Plate Recognition system, or ANPR. "Our aim is to deny criminals the use of the roads."
The technology is already being used on the M25, which rings London and is the country's busiest road. The system, scheduled to begin operating nationally by June, will employ thousands of cameras on fixed poles or in mobile police vans on major highways, key back roads and vital intersections throughout England and Wales.
Dean said the idea is to make it difficult, if not impossible, to travel by road without being captured by the cameras.
In recent years, the British public has accepted a generally high level of surveillance in public places to counter terrorism and common crime. Thousands of closed-circuit cameras were installed on city streets during the Irish Republican Army's bombing campaigns.
'Gross invasion of privacy'
Some human rights groups are fighting the new project, calling it a dangerous step toward a Big Brother society. "We believe it is a gross invasion of privacy," said Douglas Jewell, campaigns coordinator for Liberty, a human rights organization. "We don't have a problem with surveillance cameras when they are used appropriately. But the idea of establishing a massive national database that will record ordinary people's journeys and whereabouts is troubling."
Each of the system's cameras, backed up by computers that read numbers from their images, can monitor 3,600 license plates per hour, Dean said. That information is immediately cross-referenced with a police database of plates registered to people suspected of breaking the law.
Police inspector Paul Moor said that a "textbook" example of how the system works occurred Nov. 24, when police were parked on the shoulder of the A13 highway 20 miles east of London. Their van had a camera to scan passing license plates and computer equipment to check for numbers linked to criminal suspects.
Moor said that two seconds after a 1998 Volvo station wagon passed, the computer's alert system announced: "Attention: no insurance." Having no insurance is a crime in England, and Moor, who was in the van, radioed to police officers down the road. When they tried to pull over the Volvo, Moor said, it sped away. The officers pursued it. Ultimately, Moor said, six police cars converged on the Volvo, and officers found a plastic bag containing $180,000 worth of heroin.
In another case, Dean said, witnesses noted the plate number of a car they saw leaving the scene of a child's abduction. The next day, an ANPR camera detected the car. When police stopped it, they found the missing child in the trunk.
"It's tremendous; it is one of the best tools we have had in years," Moor said.
But Jewell, the human rights activist, said the system will enable police to "build profiles of people" and their movements even though they have committed no crime. He said few people are happy about "being tracked all day."
People in Britain are already monitored by more than 4 million closed-circuit, or CCTV, cameras, making it the most-watched nation in the world, according to Liberty. The group said that a typical London resident is monitored 300 times a day.
Cameras keep an eye out throughout the London subway and bus system, on street corners and in stores, and around public buildings. The closed-circuit camera industry has quadrupled in a decade and is now a $1 billion-a-year business, according to the British Security Industry Association, a trade group.
The extent of London's CCTV network became well known after bombs exploded in three subway cars and a bus last July. Fifty-two passengers were killed in addition to four bombers, and more than 700 people were injured; a similar incident two weeks later failed when the attackers' bombs failed to detonate.
Almost immediately, police were able to release still photos of men suspected of carrying out the bombings. CCTV had captured them in the subway system and on the bus.
Britain also has huge numbers of speed- and traffic-enforcement cameras. These spot drivers speeding, making illegal turns or driving into the center of London without paying a $14 fee meant to discourage the use of private cars on crowded streets. Violators discover that they have been caught only when fine notices arrive in their mailboxes.
Police said the ANPR system originated with police efforts to track the movement of IRA bombers in Britain. It can now store information on the movement of cars for two years and soon may be able to do it for five.
This year, officials said, more than $20 million has been allocated for the new system. That does not include the much larger cost of paying the people who run it.
'Entitled to security'
"It's not that technology is better here," Dean said, it's that Britain has chosen to invest in it and dedicate police teams to intercept cars that trip alerts, which differs from approaches used by other countries. He said FBI officials asked him about the ANPR system on Tuesday, and officials from Australia, Canada and many European countries have also inquired about it.
Dean said he understands that the widespread public use of closed-circuit cameras is "not as readily accepted in the United States" and other countries. He knows critics call it an Orwellian invasion of privacy. But he said he believes "people are entitled to security."
Raymond Ajakaiye, 26, a graduate student in international business in London, said he didn't mind the ever-widening use of surveillance cameras. He was interviewed as he rode a train on the subway's Jubilee Line, where he was filmed on CCTV cameras.
"It only bothers people who have something negative in mind," he said. "I say, if it makes the city safer, go ahead."