A NETWORK of secret roadside cameras used to track terror suspects, drug traffickers and child abductors has been rolled out across Scotland, police have revealed.
Senior officers have told The Scotsman that the installation of Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras was completed this month, allowing detectives to monitor the movements of suspects from a 4,000 name watchlist as they travel on major routes across the country.
The surveillance equipment, which looks like ordinary speed cameras, was piloted in Strathclyde and Fife and police say it has been hugely successful in catching and monitoring thousands of suspects and criminals, including sex offenders, bogus callers and disqualified drivers.
But some human rights campaigners have branded the system a "Big Brother"-style infringement on personal liberties.
Police will not disclose where the cameras are located, or how many there are, but say they also have a number of mobile units allowing them to act on specific intelligence about a suspect's movements, or target particular crime hotspots.
Alan Burnett, who has overseen the roll-out of ANPR for the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland, revealed that the next phase in the programme, to expand the system to local authority CCTV cameras, was already well under way.
"We have the software that allows us to use CCTV for number plate recognition," he said.
The Scottish Executive has spent 1.5m on ANPR machines which can check up to 3,000 licence plates an hour on vehicles travelling at speeds of up to 100mph.
Police forces have created a central database of 4,000 vehicles owned by people they want to monitor. This has been connected to the Scottish Intelligence Database (SID) to allow every officer to be able to request that a vehicle of interest should be checked.
Mr Burnett, who is Assistant Chief Constable of Fife Constabulary, said: "We've completed the installation of fixed-site cameras this month, which has created an extremely flexible network."
He revealed that the cameras had been used to track people involved in child abduction and drug trafficking and had been used in anti-terrorism operations. In 2004, in Fife, 1,247 crimes were detected using the technology.
"It can cover the most serious crimes to someone who hasn't got an insurance document. But each force is prioritising the crimes they are interested in. If we put all the numbers on the system that we are interested in, it would be overwhelmed."
Mr Burnett said details were also kept on the system for a limited period of time, ensuring the number of targets did not escalate out of control.
"We understand some people are worried about this being Big Brother, but the general public shouldn't worry. There are checks and balances regulating the intelligence on the system."
Mr Burnett said the technology also allowed them to identify the faces of drivers. He said legislation would have to be introduced to allow such intimate monitoring and acknowledged "a debate will have to be had" as to whether such tactics would be acceptable.
In July, Sir Andrew Leggatt, the UK's Chief Surveillance Commissioner, warned the use of ANPR could be open to legal challenge.
He urged ministers to bring forward legislation to ensure the equipment is in line with privacy laws and police are not prevented from using the cameras to give evidence in court.
"There are two sides to the argument, but if I was making the case for extending ANPR I would say it could be a very powerful tool in the fight against crime and terrorism," said Mr Burnett.
ANPR cameras are also being used in Edinburgh to monitor traffic flows and could be used for congestion charging schemes.
Lawyers last night said the correct balance had to be struck between helping the police monitor criminals and preserving the rights of individuals.
"Whilst recognising this may be helpful to the police, there needs to be public disclosure of the proposed uses of such surveillance techniques and how they are being regulated," said Maggie Scott, chair of the Criminal Bar Association.
But Margaret Mitchell, the Scottish Tories' justice spokeswoman, welcomed the new tracking system. "We need to deploy whatever resources are available to tackle terrorism, paedophile rings and other serious crimes," she said.