Surveillance chief: number plates should be regulated like passports

Car number plates should be better regulated, making them easier to be read by a nationwide network of ‘Big Brother’ type cameras on motorways and main roads.

That’s according to a report prepared by the UK’s surveillance camera commissioner Tony Porter and presented to Parliament this week.

There’s an estimated 9,000 automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras monitoring roads across the UK. These can notify authorities if a car passes through them and triggers an alert – that could be anything from an expired MOT to being listed as a wanted car connected with criminals.

But in his report, Porter claims it’s too easy to modify number plates to evade detection by ANPR cameras.

“ANPR depends on the quality of number plates it captures,” said Porter. “The whole infrastructure, I would argue, is predicated against the fact that number plates do what it says on the plate – allows you to read the number. If they are frustrated by their design or people easily circumvent capture by screwing a deceptive screw between a 1 and a 1 making an H – then who should be concerned?”

He adds that the number of approved number plate manufacturers should be restricted, with controls similar to the production of passports and driving licences applied.

“I understand there are approximately 40,000 (20,000 ‘active’) number plate suppliers in the UK. This, in an unregulated environment, which seems to me tailor made to defeat the system.”

It is not known how many number plates are misread by ANPR cameras, but estimates suggest it could be as high as three percent. Porter says he’s working closely with the Home Office to establish a figure and discover the impact of ‘misreads’.