January 11th, 2021 at 5:26 pm
Where would the world we live in today be without acronyms? They’re pretty useful when they’re fairly obvious what they stand for, but some of the more obscure ones can be more than a little puzzling. One you may not have come across – especially if you’re lucky enough to have avoided falling foul of one – is ANPR. For the uninitiated, ANPR stands for Automated Number Plate Recognition, and it’s an increasingly prevalent technology that reads number plates using cameras and then compares the result against database records.
What is ANPR used for?
According to the NPCC (National Police Chiefs’ Council) factsheet, “ANPR technology is used to help detect, deter and disrupt criminality at a local, force, regional and national level, including tackling travelling criminals, Organised Crime Groups and terrorists.” Those are lofty aims and it’s hard to argue with the usefulness and worthiness of a system if it can help track and catch terrorists and the most serious criminals, but a lot more of us than just the worst of the criminal underworld will fall foul of this technology.
Although terrorists and serious felons have plenty to fear from ANPR, the vast majority of “criminals” these systems catch here in the UK are average motorists. There are millions of reasons why local and national authorities employ these camera systems to read your number plate, and the overwhelming majority of those reasons have a “£” right in front of them.
The main use of ANPR camera systems is to catch motorists committing a variety of offences, from something as relatively harmless and inane as a tyre touching the line indicating a bus lane to more serious issues as uninsured, untaxed and even stolen vehicles.
Where are ANPR cameras located?
The original use of ANPR systems was for police forces across the country and they can be mounted in fixed positions in designated areas or used as a mobile platform in police cars and vans. National guidelines for police use of ANPR are fairly strict, and if the police want to install ANPR in a location an assessment has to be carried out to demonstrate a clear need for the implementation and a number of factors have to be taken into consideration.
Of course, a technology like this was never going to remain exclusively for police use and ANPR systems are now being operated by local authorities and private companies all over the country. If you get a fine notice for parking where you shouldn’t or for overstaying your welcome in a pay and display car park, there’s every chance there will be ANPR camera evidence against you if you try to appeal.
When it comes to the majority of uses of ANPR systems it’s hard to argue against their use and their effectiveness is hard to dispute, although they’re not always foolproof it has to be said. What gives ANPR systems a bad name with drivers sometimes is when they’re used to issue fines for the most spurious of reasons. If you’ve ever got a fine in the post for putting half a wheel into a bus lane to avoid a swerving cyclist or some other hazard, you’ll definitely understand.
How does ANPR work?
ANPR camera system effectively photograph your vehicle number plate, that image is then passed to a reader which uses Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software to read the vehicle registration mark (VRM) letters and characters. An image of the view of the number plate and/or overview camera is then saved and checked against whichever database is being used by that particular operator for their specific requirements.
ANPR data is generally comprised of two pieces of data, which are “read” and “hit.” Read is the capture of the registration number and image of the vehicle as it passes through the camera’s field of view, and read data is the collective term used for all the data gathered as vehicles pass through the view of the reader. Hit data is a record of a match to VRM detail held within whichever database is being searched by the operator.
What information can ANPR systems access?
If it’s of any comfort to you, there are distinct differences between the databases various operators can access and the information they can gather about you. Be warned; get ready for a raft of extra acronyms!
The Law Enforcement Agencies (LEA), such as the police, use ANPR within the realm of the law enforcement National ANPR Infrastructure (NAI). The LEA who are allowed access to the NAI are designated as ‘Approved LEA’ and that means they are listed in National ANPR Standards for Policing (NASP). Although ANPR is used by private companies, those companies don’t have access to anything like the amount of information the LEA are privy to.
ANPR data processed by private companies and local authorities for reasons such as car park fee enforcement isn’t passed to LEA, and no police data is passed to the private companies. However, plenty of private operators and local authorities are able to obtain access to data held on you by the DVLA, which is how they identify the owner of the vehicle and can then helpfully send those fixed penalty notices to your address in the post.
Is ANPR foolproof?
Unfortunately, there really is no such thing as a foolproof computer system of any sort, and ANPR is no exception. Minor issues can be something like the miss-read of a number or character that can lead to a fine being issued to the wrong driver, but more serious problems are possible.
Sheffield City Council’s ANPR network suffered a massive data not too long ago that was caused by deficient online security that saw the details of almost nine million private journeys released onto the internet. This major ANPR network was left totally unprotected, and all that had to be done to gain access to the details of some 8.6 million journeys was to enter the IP address into an internet browser with no login details or password required. The breach was discovered and closed, but it shows how easy it is for these systems to be compromised.
ANPR is a clever technology that definitely has its uses, but how each of us feels about the technology probably depends on whether we’ve had a good or bad experience with it. If you’ve had your car stolen or your number plate cloned you’re probably a fan, but if you’ve had to pay £60 or more for a ludicrously minor traffic infringement you probably don’t feel too much love for it.