What’s wrong with ULEZ? It’s not what you think

ULEZ – the Ultra Low Emmission Zone – has become a political football. Its significance to a general election manifesto became apparent as the Conservatives retained the Uxbridge and South Rusilip seat in a crucial by-election as plans to expand the clean air zone loomed over constituents.

The prospect of being charged the £12 per day levy for older model diesel cars, under London Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan’s policy, has been met with opposition. The scheme will cause a significant financial impact amid a cost of living crisis and the funding scheme just isn’t stretching far enough. But it’s an initiative that’s reduced harmful emissions and therefore, promises better health for residents amid chronic illness and death, and better hope for the planet.

Still, ULEZ’s implementation is controversial but perhaps not for the reasons you think.

The real cause of concern regarding ULEZ for many communities and for human rights activists is its use of automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) and the free access to this data given to the Metropolitan Police Service (the Met).

The system can pick up the number plate of vehicles to check against a database determining whether it meets emissions standards or is subject to a levy.

In 2014, then Mayor Boris Johnson gave the Met limited powers to access the ANPR data, and Khan has expanded these powers to allow the Met additional access to data, including enhanced contextual imagery data from the Congestion Charge Zone cameras that could reveal, alongside the number plate, other distinguishing vehicle details, such as colour and make, and potentially the face of the driver and surrounding contextual data, such as pedestrians. He also agreed to expand that access to any geographic locations within the ULEZ expansion plans.

No public consent

Under the current data protection laws of the country, use of any data the police can access must meet thresholds to satisfy that use of such data is necessary and proportional. And this massive uplift in powers brings up concern for a number of reasons.

Firstly, this new dimension to the monitoring of the ULEZ zone and the increased surveillance it entails, has gone through without any public consultaton. Bear in mind the diminished trust in the Met, which earlier this year was found to be institutionally racist, misogynistic, and homophobic, it’s not clear the public trust them enough with such a huge amount of data about their daily movements.

Secondly, the Surveillance Camera Code states: “A surveillance camera system should only be used in a public place for the specific purpose or purposes it was established to address. It should not be used for other purposes that would not have justified its establishment in the first place.”

ULEZ’s camera network for ANPR, itself lacking much oversight or regulation, has been intended for one purpose, and as the biometrics and surveillance camera commissioner – also chair of the ANPR Independent Advisory Group (IAG) – pointed out, there is limited evidence that extending the functions of this camera network would bring benefits, making its legality questionable. At the very least, you need consent to roll out a new purpose, or possess a clear obligation set out in law. Overreach of ULEZ data collection has already been seen during the pandemic as ANPR was used to identify people breaking lockdown rules.

How else it can be used is an interesting question and one we’re deeply concerned about at Open Rights Group (ORG). Scrutinising the use of exisitng and extended police powers and abuse of powers to over-surveil communities of colour under the guise of tackling crime, such as via the Prevent policy or tackling gang violence, already shows it is executing pre-crime policies. We also question how comfortable people will be with ANPR if it becomes apparent that the tech can pick up images of a driver’s children, can tell how often they visit a mosque, when they go to a post office or a doctor’s apointment, or have an argument and many other intimate detail of a person’s life.

Mission Creep

In any case, if ULEZ helps cut emissions in London, its success so far has come without the need for new expanded police powers. And it can continue to succeed without compromising privacy. There are many options for making these systems more equitable.

For instance, data captured of licence plate numbers needn’t be stored on servers accessible by such a wide range of users. Rather than using an internal authorisation system, police access could be governed by an independent authority, just as phone records are requested today, thanks to campaigning and legal challenges from ORG, Liberty and other civil liberties organisations. A right to notification could be established for people whose licence plates are accessed by police.

Or we could remove the problem at source, and simply not collect the data. Schemes like ULEZ require that some vehicles are charged, while others are not. But this calculation could be done within a vehicle, by a device. If road charging becomes more common, as seems likely, then it would be sensible to decide whether we want permanent tracking of all vehicles any time they use road priced routes, or whether it would be better for devices within the vehicle to simpy report how much is owed, on the basis of where the vehicle has travelled, using GPS, for instance. Surveillance or privacy is a choice, dependent on social preferences; surveillance is never the automatic result of environmental charging.

If the government or the Labour Party truly cares about the state of air pollution and the UK’s environmental goals, it can’t ignore how the fear of surveillance could undermine climate goals.

As recent events have shown, there is a clear backlash against ULEZ and the idea that it could be a trojan horse for broader policing could simply further cement adverse sentiment to the scheme. That is a situation that won’t help environmental campaigners further their aims either, if public support for future government-backed environmental tech schemes is reduced by fear of “mission creep.”

Smart move

Change is possible, however.

For instance, last year ORG challenged the government’s plan to collect detailed smart meter data for the purpose of monitoring government rebate schemes.

Despite past government assurances, in October 2022, changes were flagged in government privacy policies that would allow the government to collect and use smart meter data, without explaining why or how it would be used. Smart meter data can reveal intimate details about people’s personal lives, uncovering exactly when they are at home and the type of activities and appliances they are using.

Furthermore, the government asked to keep this data for ‘as long as required’ or up to 10 years. After continuous communication with ORG, the government quietly announced changes to its policy to reduce the level of detail in the data it collects.

Take action

As of 3 March 2023, there are 1,400 cameras used for ULEZ enforcement. Plans to install 2,750 by August last year stalled as five councils launched a legal challenge against the scheme’s rollout in their areas. However, even if the ULEZ expansion does not go ahead, installed cameras will be available for use by the Met, as detailed in a data protection impact (DPIA) for the scheme.

ORG, with former co-leader of the Green Party and current Green London Assembly member Siân Berry, is holding the London Mayor to account. Khan has gone on the record to state a new data protection impact assessment must be completed before the Met is granted access to any new cameras. He has also committed to meet with Berry, ORG and other grassroots groups to discuss the implications of increased surveillance in the capital, already considered a panopticon with its existing network of cameras and increasing surveillance.

But it’s a slippery slope. ULEZ won’t stop at Greater London necessarily and if its proposed use of cameras continues unchallenged it will serve as a precedent for other UK jurisdictions.

Better solutions that can be delivered without surveillance urgently need consideration.

If you care about privacy and want to stop disproportionate state surveillance that could hurt the UK’s environmental goals rather than help them, write to your MP and the London Mayor and inform them that these powers won’t win them votes in the next election.

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