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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Traffic cameras used to harass and limit movement of peaceful protestors

Britain is full of license-plate cameras, cameras used to send you tickets if you're caught speeding, or driving in the bus-lane, or entering London's "congestion-charge zone" without paying the daily fee for driving in central London. And because of Chekhov's first law of narrative ("a gun on the mantelpiece in act one will go off by act three"), the police have decided to also use these cameras as a surveillance tool, to "catch terrorists" (and other bad guys). So any police officer can add any license number to the database of "people of interest" and every time that license plate passes a camera, the local police force will receive an urgent alert, and can pull over the car, detain the driver, and search the car and its passengers under the Terrorism Act.

And, of course, police officers are less than discriminating about who they add to this list. For example, "Catt, 50, and her 84-year-old father, John" were added to the list because a police officer noticed their van at three protest demonstrations. And now Catt and John get pulled over by the police and searched as terrorists.

Environmental activists tend to be pretty forgiving of license-plate cameras, because they're a critical piece of congestion-charge systems that charge people money for driving instead of using public transit. This kind of regressive tax (the £10 charge in London is a pittance and no disincentive to the wealthy, and is crippling to the marginal and the poor) is also much beloved by the law-and-economics crowd, who assume that rational consumers will all be equally disincentivized by a little friction in the system.

But congestion charges require license plate cameras, and license plate cameras are an enormous piece of artillery to hand to the world's police, who are increasingly pants-wettingly afraid of any sort of public protest -- including environmental protests. I support reducing driving as much as the next green, but environmental change will require lots of protest, and that protest will get exponentially harder with the growth of the traffic cameras that are absolutely integral to congestion charge schemes.

The two anti-war campaigners were not the only law-abiding protesters being monitored on the roads. Officers have been told they can place "markers" against the vehicles of anyone who attends demonstrations using the national ANPR data centre in Hendon, north London, which stores information on car journeys for up to five years.

Senior officers have been instructed to "fully and strategically exploit" the database, which allows police to mark vehicles with potentially useful inform-ation such as drink-driving convictions.

The use of the ANPR database to flag-up vehicles belonging to protesters has resulted in peaceful campaigners being repeatedly stopped and searched.

Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal Kent and Essex police deployed mobile ANPR "interceptor teams" on roads surrounding the protest against the Kingsnorth power station, in Kent, last year.

Original here

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