According to Cory Doctorow over at BoingBoing, a proposal in the UK will see Closed Circuit Television Cameras (CCTV) being used to automatically check drivers’ tax and insurance status when they stop to refuel their vehicles.
CCTV cameras with Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) – currently used by fuel stations to identify drivers who drive off without paying – would connect to government tax and insurance databases and look up each vehicle’s records before the driver can buy fuel.
There are almost 2 million uninsured drivers on the UK’s roads, costing law abiding drivers who must pay higher insurance premiums. A reduction in their numbers should therefore benefit many people.
However, there are obvious privacy issues with this plan, including the collection and potential retention of licence plate data which could be combined with location data, and ethical issues related to automatic database lookups of people suspected of no crime.
In the US, such automatic database lookups might be considered a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches. The situation in the UK is not so clear; the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) gives police the power to stop and search individuals only if they have a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed or is about to be committed. While these database lookups are not considered “searches”, neither are they performed on people suspected of a crime, nor are they performed by police officers.
The Data Protection Act requires data be used for the purpose collected, though it would be relatively easy for the government to argue that fraud reduction is one purpose of their databases. In fuel stations, signs informing people of the cameras’ operation could satisfy the requirements of informing people that data is being collected.
Are automatic checking systems like this a reasonable way to reduce tax evasion and the number of uninsured drivers? Do the benefits of these systems outweigh the drawbacks?