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Vehicle tracking in Japan: N-system

August 13, 2009

Back in February, I reported from Brazil about the progress of a proposed RFID-based vehicle tracking system, SINIAV. Of course RFID is not at all necessary for tracking. In the UK, the police have used Automatic Numberplate Recognition (ANPR) systems based on roadside cameras since 1993 in London – following the Provisional IRA bombings of the City and Docklands (see the account in my erstwhile collaborator, Jon Coaffee‘s book, Terrorism, Risk and the City – and since 2005, this has been in the process of being expanded into a nationwide network (see also the official Press Release from the Association of Chief Police Officers concerning the launch here).

What is rather less well-known to the outside world is that Japan developed such an automated camera system far earlier, from the early 1980s. The so-called N-system thereafter was gradually expanded to cover almost all major expressways and strategic urban locations in Tokyo and Osaka. Kabukicho, the entertainment district in Shinjuku, which I have spent some time studying over the last few years and will write about more tomorrow, is surrounded by N-system cameras and it is, I estimate, impossible to drive into this area without your license plate being recorded. These cameras are in addition to the 50 CCTV cameras that cover just about every street within the district. N-system is supposed to have played a major role on snaring suspects from the apocaylptic cult, Aum Shinrikyo, which carried out the Sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo underground in 1995, and who also assassinated top policemen and judges. Aum, now renamed ‘Aleph’, has been under official state surveillance ever since.

The Japanese police are not very forthcoming about N-system, let alone the details of how long data is kept and what it is used for. However one particular lawyer’s office in Tokyo did a very good investigation of the constitutional, legal and practical aspects of N-system back in the late 90s, and the updated pages are available here, including a nice little animation explaining how the system works.

We will hopefully be talking to them before we leave Tokyo. We still have time for a few more interviews here including the East Japan Railways security research lab, the Japanese consumers’ association, the organisation for the welfare of foreign workers, and the Suginami ward community safety people. And I will also just about have time to shoot down to Kobe to talk to Professor Kiyoshi Abe, a friend and collaborator, who is also one of the leading surveillance researchers here.

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