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Britain

November 13, 2002

Big Brother will be watching you

MOTORISTS living in Central London will be spied on by a network of cameras and may have to explain their movements under Ken Livingstone’s congestion charge scheme for the capital.

The Mayor of London is demanding that the drivers waive certain rights under the Data Protection Act to obtain a discount on the £5 daily charge. Motoring groups said that the monitoring scheme “smacks of Big Brother”.

More than 83,000 people living inside the congestion charging zone and 218,000 disabled-badge holders in London are being told that they must agree to have their movements monitored. Transport for London, the mayor’s transport authority, plans to use a network of more than 200 cameras to identify any “suspicious movements” by those who may have fraudulently obtained a discount. Each vehicle will have its numberplate read by a camera three or more times while it is inside the eight-square-mile zone, which comes into force on February 17 next year. A central computer will check the numberplates against a list of those who have paid or who are exempt. Anyone not on the list will be sent an £80 penalty notice.

Mr Livingstone has repeatedly promised that the information will not be used to discover where individuals are going. He has said that all records of those who have paid the charge or obtained a discount will be deleted after 24 hours. But the mayor has quietly introduced exceptions to this rule after being warned that the scheme could be undermined by fraudsters.

Residents inside the zone can obtain a 90 per cent discount, saving them £1,100 a year. Disabled people with blue badges are eligible for a 100 per cent discount and can nominate any two vehicles a day to pick them up and drop them off.

Transport for London (TfL) fears that people will try to register at addresses of friends or relatives inside the zone, or will claim that they are dropping off a disabled person. It aims to catch these people by looking at the pattern of their movements as recorded by the cameras.

Anyone applying for a discount must sign a declaration stating: “I understand that TfL needs to identify possible fraudulent use of discounts. I accept that this may include on-street and residential checks, and the analysis of movements of randomly selected vehicles in the congestion-charging zone.”

The form also contains a “data-protection statement” which says: “TfL may record your vehicle’s movements and may disclose relevant details to local authorities and/or law enforcement agencies, to assist in tracing persistent evaders and those committing fraud.”

A Transport for London spokesman said that enforcement officers would look for unusual journey patterns. “If the vehicle shows suspicious movements then we will add it to a list that we need to keep an eye on. We will run further checks and we may call on people at the address they have registered.”

The spokesman said that people were being asked to sign the declaration to prevent any legal challenges under the Data Protection Act over use of the camera records. “We have got to get the balance right between Big Brother and giving people the benefit of the doubt,” he said.

Paul Watters, the AA’s head of roads policy, said: “This will only heighten people’s fears that this scheme is more about tracking people than reducing congestion. With parking cameras, speed cameras, bus lane cameras and now congestion cameras, we are moving towards Big Brother. Our car is no longer the great symbol of our freedom.”

Roger Evans, Conservative transport spokesman in the London Assembly, said: “This monitoring will be extremely intrusive and may lead to innocent people being compelled to explain their movements.”

Transport for London is understood to have identified dozens of possible ways in which people could try to evade the toll. It is running a series of “loophole workshops” at which people are invited to think up ways of getting round the rules.

What they said

'It is quite clear that some defence is needed against the reported activities of Mr Ken Livingstone'
Margaret Thatcher, July 1981

'I love meetings and plottings. I didn't get where I am today without plotting'
Ken Livingstone, October 1997

'I've got no reason to believe that if he found himself in the mayor's chair he wouldn't continue to extrude half-arsed ideas'
Neil Kinnock, January 2000

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