Who watches the watchmen?: Royston ANPR investigated

PUBLISHED: 12:06 04 August 2011 | UPDATED: 13:27 04 August 2011

ANPR cameras.

ANPR cameras.

Daniel Wilson

THIS week four men were arrested, charged and remanded in custody after coming to the attention of a police ANPR team.

It is alleged they attempted to break into a Royston home and it is doubtful they would have been caught without the device.

These are the same high-tech crime fighting cameras that will surround the town in a controversial ‘ring of steel’.

The cameras will enclose Royston, monitoring all traffic in and out of the town – a move civil liberty groups oppose.

Big Brother Watch, No CCTV and Privacy International are among campaigners who are concerned the cameras are at the forefront of an expanding state.

Charles Farrier, of No CCTV, said: “I think it is a civil liberties and surveillance society issue and more, it’s about a major change in the way policing operates in this country to monitoring the movements of people.

“In the UK traditionally we have tried to differentiate our selves from fascists and Stasi states.

“This is very much a Stasi movement, everything that is going on currently means your movements will be recorded.”

Although Royston at first glance seems to be an unusual place for a debate on state intrusion to be sparked, the town’s location has pushed it to the forefront.

Both the A10 and A505 roads run through the town which sits on the border of Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire – catching the eye of Hertfordshire Constabulary’s top brass.

The force decided to make Royston the first place in the country where ANPR cameras will surround an entire town.

Although the technology has been used around Britain since the 1990s it is the coverage, despairingly referred to as a checkpoint system by the pressure groups, which has caused controversy.

The cameras, which can be mounted remotely or within patrol cars, are capable of taking a picture a second and photograph number plates and people in the cars – comparing the data to records, identifying any anomalies and alerting officers.

Inspector Andy Piper, ANPR manager, defended the scheme, saying the cameras will work as both a deterrent and detection tool.

“On first sight, the ANPR coverage of such a low crime town as Royston may seem an unusual choice,” he said

“The local council and local business group funded the cameras to help protect their businesses and local residents from crime – and when we look at the bigger picture in terms of Hertfordshire, as well as nationally, the position of the cameras makes a lot of sense strategically to target those criminals travelling into the county on the main roads in that area.”

It is estimated only two per cent of the recorded information, which relates to criminal activity, is examined, but campaigners claim this is about to change.

Mr Farrier has claimed powerful data-mining software may be used to examine the remaining 98 per cent of data to retrospectively find criminals.

His group and the others lodged a complaint with the Information Commissioner listing their concerns – born out of a belief there has been “no public debate, no parliamentary debate, no act of parliament, not even a Statutory Instrument.”

Despite the groups’ concerns it seems people living locally do not feel threatened by the cameras.

Police data claim nine out of 10 residents support the initiative, and The Crow has previously spoken to members of public, with all except one supporting ANPR.

The scheme is a joint venture between the police, North Hertfordshire District Council and the business partnership Royston First, which have all contributed funds to the project.

Oliver Heald, Royston’s MP, has been out on a patrol with an ANPR team and has said Royston’s cameras are an important police resource.

He said: “This week’s case reinforces the advantages to law-abiding residents.

“It should also not be forgotten that Royston is the gateway to Hertfordshire with major road connections and our ANPR provides an important regional police resource.

“I have always said that surveillance techniques need to be used in a justifiable way, and I believe that Royston’s ANPR satisfies the test.”

It is still unknown where the cameras are placed, and it is expected they will go live later this month, but Mr Farrier has a stark warning for Royston.

“If people don’t fight back the future of Royston will be as the first town in the country to be surrounded by ANPR. It’s up to Royston really,” he said.

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