Britain is about to become the first country in the world to record the movements of all vehicles on the roads. A new national surveillance system will hold the records for at least two years.
Using a network of cameras that can automatically read every passing number plate, the plan is to build a huge database of vehicle movements so that the police and security services can analyse any journey a driver has made over several years.
The network will incorporate thousands of existing CCTV cameras which are being converted to read number plates automatically night and day to provide 24/7 coverage of all motorways and main roads, as well as towns, cities, ports and petrol-station forecourts.
By next March a central database installed alongside the Police National Computer in Hendon, north London, will store the details of 35 million number-plate "reads" per day. These will include time, date and precise location, with camera sites monitored by global positioning satellites.
Already there are plans to extend the database by increasing the storage period to five years and by linking thousands of additional cameras so that details of up to 100 million number plates can be fed each day into the central databank.
Senior police officers have described the surveillance network as possibly the biggest advance in the technology of crime detection and prevention since the introduction of DNA fingerprinting.
But others concerned about civil liberties will be worried that the movements of millions of law-abiding people will soon be routinely recorded and kept on a central computer database for years.
The new national data centre of vehicle movements will form the basis of a sophisticated surveillance tool that lies at the heart of an operation designed to drive criminals off the road.
In the process, the data centre will provide unrivalled opportunities to gather intelligence data on the movements and associations of organised gangs and terrorist suspects whenever they use cars, vans or motorcycles.
The scheme is being orchestrated by the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) and has the full backing of ministers who have sanctioned the spending of £24m this year on equipment.
More than 50 local authorities have signed agreements to allow the police to convert thousands of existing traffic cameras so they can read number plates automatically. The data will then be transmitted to Hendon via a secure police communications network.
Chief constables are also on the verge of brokering agreements with the Highways Agency, supermarkets and petrol station owners to incorporate their own CCTV cameras into the network. In addition to cross-checking each number plate against stolen and suspect vehicles held on the Police National Computer, the national data centre will also check whether each vehicle is lawfully licensed, insured and has a valid MoT test certificate.
"Every time you make a car journey already, you’ll be on CCTV somewhere. The difference is that, in future, the car’s index plates will be read as well," said Frank Whiteley, Chief Constable of Hertfordshire and chairman of the Acpo steering committee on automatic number plate recognition (ANPR).
"What the data centre should be able to tell you is where a vehicle was in the past and where it is now, whether it was or wasn’t at a particular location, and the routes taken to and from those crime scenes. Particularly important are associated vehicles," Mr Whiteley said.
The term "associated vehicles" means analysing convoys of cars, vans or trucks to see who is driving alongside a vehicle that is already known to be of interest to the police. Criminals, for instance, will drive somewhere in a lawful vehicle, steal a car and then drive back in convoy to commit further crimes "You’re not necessarily interested in the stolen vehicle. You’re interested in what’s moving with the stolen vehicle," Mr Whiteley explained.
According to a strategy document drawn up by Acpo, the national data centre in Hendon will be at the heart of a surveillance operation that should deny criminals the use of the roads.
"The intention is to create a comprehensive ANPR camera and reader infrastructure across the country to stop displacement of crime from area to area and to allow a comprehensive picture of vehicle movements to be captured," the Acpo strategy says.
"This development forms the basis of a 24/7 vehicle movement database that will revolutionise arrest, intelligence and crime investigation opportunities on a national basis," it says.
Mr Whiteley said MI5 will also use the database. "Clearly there are values for this in counter-terrorism," he said.
"The security services will use it for purposes that I frankly don’t have access to. It’s part of public protection. If the security services did not have access to this, we’d be negligent."