The move comes at a time when both amateur and professional photographers working in the capital have claimed that they have been stopped and questioned by police, or have been told that they cannot photograph in public places.

A recent poster campaign by the Metropolitan Police listed photography as a potential indicator of terrorist activity, and last Friday NUJ General Secretary Jeremy Dear held a one-man protest against restrictions placed on press photographers by police officers.

The opt-in scheme, devised by the Metropolitan Police and known as Photo Safety Identity Checking Observation (PSICO), will enable photographers’ identities to be monitored in sensitive locations such as near government and military buildings, embassies, airports, bus and railway stations, schools, shops, banks, pubs and restaurants and anywhere else the public is potentially vulnerable to photo reconnaissance by terrorists and sexual predators.

According to one senior police officer familiar with the project, photography presents a unique problem for law enforcement because it is not illegal: “A lot of people are relatively harmless with their use of cameras, so the problem becomes one of trying to find out who the bad guys really are. Obviously we will check criminal records, but since street photography is not yet technically an offence this is not adequate”

‘No different to CCTV

Photographers who wish to photograph in the pilot area will be required to first register at Charing Cross police station bringing either a driving license, passport or birth certificate, and by paying an administration fee.

After registration, which can take up to 28 days, photographers wanting to photograph on the street will have to again attend either Charing Cross police station to be issued with a thin fluorescent waistcoat fitted with an RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tag which is to be worn over other clothing.

The police source close to the project told EPUK: “RFID is a proven, cheap commercial technology that is used widely by supermarkets. We really don’t see why anyone who has nothing to hide will not carry a tag and we don’t forsee any objections from responsible photographers.”

“People already accept CCTV, safety cameras, ANPR, the congestion charge, tracker systems for cars and the tagging of offenders for probation. This is really no different.”

EPUK Exclusive Photo: A prototype RFID is seen within a waistcoat similar to the one accredited photographers are expected be issued with. The device shown is less than 4mm thick, and is flexible enough to bend round the body.

PSICO operates to a range of around 100m and like most RFID is a passive device that needs no batteries. A number of prototypes have already been tested, including an anklet, adapted from that worn by ASBO curfew subjects, a wristband, or a chip embedded in a UK national press card.

Scheme ‘likely to be extended’

While the pilot scheme covers an area less than one kilometre square, advisors to the Metropolitan Police say they are confident that the technology involved is scalable to cover the entire city. If the three-month pilot proves successful, the opt-in scheme looks likely to be gradually extended throughout the capital from 2009 onwards.

The scheme is bounded on the north side by Shaftesbury Avenue between Piccadilly Circus and Holborn underground station, and in its first phase will only cover as far south as the Strand, Leicester Square and Covent Garden. The area was chosen in part because of the high numbers of tourists with cameras in these area, but a relatively small number of security-sensitive locations.

The area covered by the pilot scheme

The 48 police-controlled closed circuit cameras in this area have been upgraded to include technology previously used by anti-piracy organisations to detect camcorders being used in cinemas. Based on Trakstar’s ‘Pirate Eye’ system, the cameras send out pulses of light which are almost indetectable by the human eye. An independent review of the in-cinema technology concluded that it had “minimal impact” on those scanned.

The pulses of light are reflected back by the coating on camera lenses, and triangulation between separate CCTV cameras allows police to see a real-time map of where photographers are working. Each of these spots is then cross-referenced with the radio-transmitted position of accredited photographers wearing RFID jackets, with police officers being sent to intercept unregistered photographers.

‘Protecting the public from antisocial photography’

The Met declined to comment officially on the scheme which has not yet been formally announced. EPUK understands from a police source close to the project but who asked not to be identified, that the scheme will not be compulsory. However anyone photographing without a remotely checkable PSICO tag is likely to be intercepted by officers and their activities challenged.

A senior police officer told EPUK: “Far too many people are carrying and using cameras in complete anonymity and absolutely nobody is keeping an eye on what they are doing with them. This is clearly a threat that makes it impossible for the public to feel safe, and PSICO will go a long way to protect them from dangerous and antisocial photography. We will know exactly who is photographing what, and if there is anything suspicious we can take them off the street.”

According to the source, different levels of permission will be associated with different levels of identity vetting and cost, which varies between £95 to £295 per year. At its most secure and costly level the scheme is expected to replace the National Press Card, in theory allowing access to some restricted areas, such as Downing Street, without police checking.

Asked whether current national press card ‘gatekeeper’ organisations were aware of this initiative, EPUK’s source said that it was ‘chip and PIN for the press card and irresistible’. There will nevertheless be full consultation with the NUJ and other interested parties once the scheme is up and running.

“Using PSICO-PRO bona fide news-gatherers won’t have to rummage in their wallet for a press card, the embedded chip means officers will know exactly who they are and can decide whether they merit cooperation or not before they even arrive”

Most amateur photographers will need a £95/year PSICO-BASIC tag. This will permit casual photography in locations where security allows. ‘We are not trying to stop people taking snaps, that would be ridiculous. But if CCTV operators see a BASIC-tagged photographer hanging around, using a pro camera with a long lens, or taking pictures at 3am, then of course we’ll probably want to have a word with them.’

While in the past many photographers would have got away with such images, the PSICO terms allow for on-the-spot inspection and deletion of any images that the attending officer deems unacceptable, accompanied by fixed penalty fines.

In addition, initial vetting and security checks will determine clearance. For example middle aged men with beards may not be allowed to photograph near schools, whilst Arabic speakers could be prevented from trainspotting.

‘Substantial contibution to public safety’

Tourists will be issued with a special time-limited form of tag embedded in a ‘Welcome to London’ badge, that allows photography at popular venues such as Madame Tussaud’s and the House of Commons. The EPUK source added that ‘we also see PSICO being useful in catching illegal immigrants and visitors who have outstayed their visas only to abuse the UK’s liberal attitudes to photography, and many of these may be possible terrorists’.

‘We have had to devise heuristic methods of anticipating unacceptable camera use” said the police source. “The ultimate aim is to first record, then assess what kind of photos applicants take and why, in much the same way that credit card companies spot unusual or suspicious transactions”

“If, say, someone who normally takes pictures of cats and sunsets is detected photographing somewhere like Heathrow where there are no cats or sunsets, then the system will flag them up, and – certainly at a sensitive location like Heathrow – we would take them down fast.”

“This really is new territory for the police’s use of technology in gathering intelligence, so the vetting procedure includes quite unconventional means : profiling subject’s use of the internet, email screening through the RIP Act and so on, checking credit card and loyalty card history to see if they buy photography books from Amazon or telephoto lenses from eBay or houmous
from Sainsburys, for example.”

“ We will check them out on Google, Facebook, and already we have most of Flickr profiled for a range of behaviours that we think are odd. Obviously I can’t be too precise for security reasons, but we would obviously pay attention to any photos that are not just snapshots.”

‘Cameras are potentially more dangerous than guns’

“This isn’t perfect by any means but it’s a substantial contribution to public safety, and we will be pressing digital camera manufacturers to integrate PSICO so that the camera itself contributes to the monitoring. We aren’t sure yet what form
this may take, because GPS and G3 technology won’t be in all cameras for a few years yet. We will be pressing to move toward a situation where cameras will report the taking of barred photographs enabling the automatic issue of fixed penalties, or will lock and alert security forces when certain images are attempted such as an airliner.”

“This may sound like science fiction right now, but cameras are potentially more dangerous than guns in the wrong hands and we believe the public fully understands the risks if unrestricted photography is allowed to spiral out of control.”

The PSICO scheme is expected to be officially announced next week by Mayor Ken Livingstone as part of his election campaign against photography, drugs and street crime.