Big Brother On Wheels: The CCTV Car

By: Ethan Ace, Published on Apr 23, 2012

Just when you think surveillance in the UK couldn't get any crazier, the CCTV car is here to ticket you for, among other things, "eating at the wheel, playing with the radio, or applying make-up", with citations often arriving in the mail weeks later. In this note, we look at the technology of these vehicles, potential use, and privacy concerns.

Overview

These vehicles, typically compact cars, contain an on-board surveillance system, with a roof-mounted PTZ camera controlled by an operator in the vehicle. The operator uses this camera to spot traffic or parking violations as they happen, manually tagging incidents via the system's user interface for further review.

This BBC video provides an overview of the car's operation:

This application allows for more general use than just LPR, which simply checks number plates against a hotlist. Live operation of this car-mounted camera allows the user to issue citations for various violations:

  • Mobile phone use
  • Distracted driving
  • One-way or closed street violations
  • Parking violations

This allows ticketing of a wider variety of offenses, and therefore more generated revenue. In one English locality, a CCTV car generated over £2 million (~$3.21M USD) in fines in a year, though costing only £20,000 (~$33,000 USD) for a year lease.

Suppliers

TES, Ltd. appears to be the main supplier of these cctv cars, offering systems in multiple configurations, including optional LPR, Wi-Fi, GPS, and mapping software.

Concerns

The combination of mobile monitoring and targeting of mundane offenses is surely to aggrieve many. As one UK resident remarked, "We find that appalling and grossly unfair." This is all the more surprising since the UK has some of the world's most stringent regulations against misuse of cctv technology. While the US is one of the most tolerant countries for surveillance, we would be stunned if such use targeted at trivial issues did not cause an uproar. That said, we do not know of any use in the US of such 'cctv cars'.

Outside of typical privacy concerns raised by public surveillance, the CCTV car raises unique issues due to its record-and-review methodology. Violations unnoticed by targets may be ticketed later, after video is reviewed, potentially weeks after the incident occurred, making the citation more difficult to protest.

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