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In the U.K., Big Brother has a driver’s license

Christopher Werth May 10, 2011

In the U.K., Big Brother has a driver’s license

Christopher Werth May 10, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: Even acknowledging the fact that we live in a surveillance society with everything from your cell phone to red light cameras at intersections keeping track of you, British citizens have it worse than most. London alone has more than 7,000 security cameras scattered around the city, keeping an eye on comings and goings. But what started with cameras fixed to lamp posts has turned into something else entirely. And it’s hitting drivers in London squarely in their wallets.

Christopher Werth reports from London.

Christopher Werth: Not long ago, Nigel Wise parked his car with two wheels on the curb thinking it was perfectly legal because he’d seen other cars parked the same way.

Nigel Wise: So therefore I thought, “There’s no problem in my doing the same.”

But two weeks later, he got a ticket in the mail for $165.

Wise: I was absolutely shocked! It’s just outrageous.

Turns out, Wise had joined the ranks of the nearly 190,000 people nabbed last year by the U.K.’s growing fleet of “camera cars.” Local governments around the country have taken smart cars and other compacts and outfitted them with devices that scan license plates and cameras that rise like a periscope 10 feet into the air.

It’s a practice Frank Manning of Big Brother Watch finds deeply troubling.

Frank Manning: I don’t think people like the idea of vehicles driving around with a camera recording them.

His organization filed freedom of information requests that found camera cars brought in over $13 million in fines last year.

Manning: Road safety seems to be last thing on their mind really. It’s scandalous.

And that outrage has given rise to the U.K.’s newest motorcycle gang of sorts. They call themselves NoToMob, which stands for “no to mobile cameras.” And their aim is to thwart those camera cars through a kind of reverse vigilantism.

Collin Thomas: We’re helping people to be proper law-abiding citizens.

That’s Collin Thomas, or Coco. About eight months ago, he and about 40 other bikers started following the camera cars, and staking out intersections where they lie and wait for scofflaws. To see this first hand, I climbed on Coco’s backseat to hunt camera cars with a few other bikers.

Members of NoToMob at Ace Cafe London. (Credit: notomob.co.uk)

Thomas: I thought I saw him pulling away as I came to Clifton Road.

Woman:Two pulled up at Clifton Road. One was already parked. The other one’s pulled up.

Eventually, we tracked a camera car to a busy corner full of stores and heavy traffic.

Steve Brown: We’re in Saville Row and Conduit Street in the West End of London.

NoToMob member Steve Brown, aka Boyo, says the camera cars frequent this corner because drivers going north on Saville Row are only allowed to make a left on Conduit Street.

Brown: So they can put their car there with their camera on board, and if you don’t take a left hand turn, you get a 120 pound fine in the post.

Or about $200. Boyo stands out on the curb and holds out a sign that says: “Beware. Hidden camera.” A few minutes, he runs into street to stop a scooter from making an illegal right turn.

Brown: Scooter man, there you go!

Scooter man: Good man.

Werth: You just saved that guy a lot of money.

Just then someone walking by gives Boyo a thumbs up.

Brown: We do have a very positive effect… Thanks so much. All the best mate, take care. Uh, from the members of the public because we’re all being used as cash cows. Hang on, I’m just going to look at this car. She looks like she’s…

And he was off into the street again. How much impact is NoToMob having on the revenue camera cars bring in?

I put that question to Kieran Fitsall, who helps manage the camera cars for Westminster, in the heart of London.

Kieran Fitsall: The number of tickets is inconsequential here. If they choose to go out there and alert motorists, then that’s helping us. But there are probably far more better things that they can do with their time.

Someone is making good use of his time. Nigel Wise, who I mentioned earlier, fought his ticket on the curb and won. Turns out, his town council has been operating its camera cars without proper paperwork from the British government. The question now is whether about $1 million in fines will have to be refunded.

In London, I’m Christopher Werth for Marketplace.

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