Police Scotland has committed to dumping millions of historic vehicle movement records over fears its vast database breaches privacy laws.
The force keeps a huge database of details of vehicle movements on Scotland’s roads derived from Automatic Number Plate Recognition cameras that are placed throughout the country.
A freedom of information request made earlier this year revealed that Police Scotland kept records of every recorded vehicle movement dating back to 2012, even though data protection rules prohibit forces from keeping records that are not linked to criminal activity being kept for longer than two years.
The Ferret can now reveal that senior officers were aware that they may have been breaking data protection rules for most of this time. Police Scotland has responded by confirming for the first time that it intends to delete historical records.
Although the police collect and retain hundreds of millions of vehicle movement records each year, typically, the authorities are only actively monitoring a tiny proportion of the vehicles that are identified.
FOI requests submitted previously by The Ferret revealed that in June 2015, the force was tracking 1894 “vehicles of interest.” In April 2014, the figure was 2,800.
The above figures indicate that Police Scotland has retained around half a billion vehicle movement records which are older than two years and not connected to any suspicious activity.
Software to run the system costs tax payers around £68,000 each year, whilst Police Scotland figures suggest that the full database could run to more than 26 terabytes of data, if full images from each “read” are being stored.
The extensive nature of the database has led privacy campaigners to warn that the retention of innocent people’s vehicle movement records for longer than two years could be in breach of data protection rules and could ultimately endanger public trust in the system.
Critics claim that the vast trove of data can reveal a great deal about innocent people, particularly if it is combined with other information available to public agencies.
The scale of the database even prompted the then justice spokesperson for the Libdems, Alison McInnes MSP, to ask a series of parliamentary questions in March of this year on the legal basis for retaining the ANPR records, but despite these enquiries no commitment was given at that time by the Scottish Government or Police Scotland to delete historic records kept on innocent people’s movements.
Now a trove of official documents on ANPR published by The Ferret shows that senior officers were aware that they could be breaking data protection rules by retaining ANPR records as early as 2013.
A briefing note produced for Police Scotland officials noted that changes in police policy prompted by “increased scrutiny” had lead to the Police in England and Wales deleting billions of records from the National ANPR data centre (NADC) database.
The 2013 paper explains: “The development of ANPR over the previous 10 years has resulted in increased scrutiny of ANPR data retention by regulatory bodies and civil liberty groups.”
“In 2009 a complaint was made in England by Privacy International to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in relation to the necessity and proportionality of the use of Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR), and its data retention policy.
“ACPO and the ICO entered discussions around this matter and having reached agreement, as of 1st March 2012 ACPO National ANPR Data Centre (NADC) commenced weeding all data over 2 years old. This resulted in the deletion of some 6 billion records from the NADC with guidance issued to forces to implement weeding on force ANPR Back Offices.”
The paper then goes on to note that the data retention periods in the local Scottish equivalent of the NADC database retains some ANPR data for far longer than two years.
Despite the intervention of the Information Commissioners Office south of the border, Police Scotland have confirmed to The Ferret that they have never consulted the Information Commissioners Office on their ANPR retention policies.
Other historical Police Scotland documents relating to ANPR rarely mention that nearly all of the force’s ANPR data has been kept and archived for longer than two years.
Notably, in 2013, a paper for the Scottish Police Services Authority, the body charged with holding Police Scotland to account, refers only to a two year retention period.
Another key document, also dated 2013, that sets out the rules for when data should automatically be deleted from the forces archive database suggests that Police Scotland policy was indeed to delete ANPR records after two years automatically, unless the records had been linked to a crime.
Even the current Standard Operating Proceedures document, published in March 2015, which sets out the processes used to manage Scottish ANPR data again makes no reference to the extensive underlying archive data held by Police Scotland
A June 2015 ICO letter to the National ANPR User Group, which brings together representatives from Police forces from across the UK, including Police Scotland, discussed proposals from law enforcement agencies for a trial that could extend the 2 year retention period used by most police forces.
The data protection watchdog concluded that it would not support an extension to the two-year rule and that if police forces were to retain data for longer than two years “specific legislation” would be required to enable “full parliamentary scrutiny” and safeguards to be put in place.
But in Spring 2016, Police Scotland admitted that it still retains millions of historical vehicle movement records to this day.
Additionally, Minutes from Police Scotland meetings record concerns over the security of mobile ANPR camera equipment, whilst another briefing note reports that staffing problems have hindered the management and development of the Police Scotland ANPR system.
Taken together critics say the documents paint a picture of “sloppy and casual” management.
The government should act
Former Senior Whitehall civil servant and transparency campaigner, Will Perrin, called for the Scottish Government to bring in specific legislation to improve the management of ANPR data.
He said: “Police Scotland have held onto 500 million number plate reads instead of deleting them as the law requires after two years. The police have a record of every journey you have made past one of their cameras since 2011.
ANPR is in many ways as troubling as the old DNA databases but in many ways worse - the data may be less personal, but the scale of collection is huge and indiscriminate. Will Perrin
“The Ferret’s excellent work has revealed that the police don’t even know how to delete data of innocent people older than two years without sorting out the number plates relating to crimes under investigation.
“ANPR is in many ways as troubling as the old DNA databases but in many ways worse – the data may be less personal, but the scale of collection is huge and indiscriminate. ANPR is very important to fighting crime and keeping us safe – but this indiscriminate data retention for years and years of hundreds of millions of files is unnecessary.
“The government should act to bring ANPR onto a proper statutory basis so that it can retain public confidence and continue to operate safely.’
A Police Scotland spokesperson confirmed that a “short life working group” has now been set-up to tackle the issue and that it planned to delete the older data following a decision by the force executive.
But they also admitted that the body had not yet worked out which data should be retained and which data should be deleted from its huge archive. Neither could they provide a timescale for when the work would be completed.
They said: “ANPR is a very useful tool in tackling criminality by serious and organised groups and terrorists, as well as in dealing with motoring offences, and a number of significant criminal prosecutions have been secured with evidence gained from using this technology.
“Data from ANPR is only generally available to Police Scotland officers for 90 days, and if required after this period a special case has to be made and approval given by an officer holding the rank of Superintendent or above.
“Police Scotland has identified that some of the ANPR data collected in the past does not meet our current retention policy. We are now working towards identifying data which no longer needs to be held for evidential and investigative purposes in order to delete it.”
No detailed answers please
Emails obtained from the Scottish Government also show that senior civil servants discouraged Police Scotland officers from providing detailed responses to questions asked by MSPs on ANPR.
The emails, which were sent between civil servants in the Scottish Government, Transport Scotland and Police Scotland earlier this year, show how senior officials sought to put together responses to the written questions from Alison McInnes on ANPR.
In one email a Ministerial aide tells a Police Scotland worker: “We do not want you to provide us with detailed answers to all of the questions Ms McInnes asks. Where SG does not hold information about facts and figures in relation to ANPR we are quite content just to respond indicating that we don’t hold the information.”
Having seen the emails, Willie Rennie, Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, called on the Justice Secretary “to sort out his department,” and he accused his officials of “deliberately and wilfully” preventing the release of information.
The sloppy and casual management of these images... confirms the Scottish Government and Police Scotland’s attraction to an overbearing and instructive state. Willie Rennie, Scottish Liberal Democrats
He said: “Instead of deliberately and wilfully obstructing the release of information it is time the Scottish Government took action to safeguard people from the misuse of their data.
“The Information Commissioner needs to investigate this behaviour and the Justice Secretary needs to sort out his department to put an end to this behaviour.
“Earlier this year Scottish Liberal Democrats revealed through freedom of information requests that Police Scotland was in possession of 850 million snapshots of people’s journeys. We asked the similar questions at Parliament and now we learn that the Scottish Government specifically told the national force it didn’t want to know the answers.
“It simply isn’t proportionate or necessary to hoard this data for years on end, and it is indefensible if it is doing so in contravention of official guidance.
“Experts tell us that when the data acquired through this huge surveillance network is combined with other systems it can be ‘far more intrusive than communication intercepts’. To make matters worse, these systems have been established without debate at Holyrood or specific legislative approval.
“The sloppy and casual management of these images and without parliamentary approval confirms the Scottish Government and Police Scotland’s attraction to an overbearing and instructive state.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “ANPR cameras are used to help detect, deter and disrupt criminality and Police Scotland have confirmed that steps have already been taken to begin removing data related to the cameras which is no longer required.
“Police Scotland and the Scottish Government are clear that ANPR in Scotland must be used in compliance with the Data Protection Act 1998, Human Rights Act 1998, Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Act 2000.”