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U.K. police swamped by surveillance TV data

Law enforcement can't keep up with the amount of information generated by the country's millions of closed-circuit TV cameras, a police representative says.

The police cannot deal with the amount of information generated by surveillance cameras, according to the U.K.'s Association of Chief Police Officers.

Ian Readhead, director of information for the ACPO Criminal Records Office, said this week that police are overwhelmed by the volume of such data and that one of his major concerns is that police don't have the capability to track a car in real time using the Automatic Number Plate Recognition System, which is part of the surveillance cameras' functions.

"The problem is the amount of data," said Readhead, speaking at a data protection in event in London on Wednesday. "The worry for me is that a child is kidnapped in Kent, and (the car) goes through a number of cameras, not being picked up."

Surveillance cameras

The plate recognition system uses optical character recognition to convert digital pictures of car number plates into characters, which are then held in a list. The technology was launched in part to aid the tracking of suspects, but, according to Readhead, there is simply too much information for the police to be able to use.

The U.K. has about 4 million surveillance cameras in use.

Dominic Grieve, the Conservative party's "shadow" home secretary, said that the efficacy of closed-circuit TV as a crime fighting tool is dubious and that police use of CCTV is hampered by lack of resources.

"CCTV provides evidence, but evidence firstly doesn't prevent crime, and secondly in many cases the police don't have the time or resources to look at CCTV (footage)," Grieve said. "In fighting crime, mass surveillance through CCTV is highly questionable."

Michael Wills, the minister of state for the Justice Ministry, said at the same conference that surveillance cameras have public support.

"I don't believe CCTV is a mistake. My constituents are begging for it," said Wills. "We are living in a very rapidly changing world. Technology is driving that (change); it's not because the government is hell-bent on controlling everyone."

In February, a House of Lords committee called for an end to "pervasive" surveillance in the U.K.

Tom Espiner of ZDNet UK reported from London.