In a move that would have made Hitler's Gestapo or East Germany's Stasi secret police proud, British government officials are drawing up plans to fit all cars in Britain with a personalised microchip so that rule-breaking motorists can be prosecuted by computer.

According to the Sunday Times, which broke the story at the weekend, the chip, dubbed the "Spy in the Dashboard" and "the Informer" will automatically report a wide range of offences including speeding, road tax evasion and illegal parking and the first a car owner will know about it is when a summons or a fine arrives in the post.

The newspaper said the plan, which is being devised by the government, police and other enforcement agencies, would see all private cars monitored by roadside sensors wherever they travelled.

Police working on the "car-tagging" scheme claim it would also help to slash car theft and even drug smuggling, the Sunday Times said.

The "Big Brother" scheme, outlined in documents shown to The Sunday Times and separate from the various congestion charging schemes being tested, has outraged civil liberties groups who claim the electronic vehicle identification (EVI) programme is draconian and an infringement of human rights.

Even those less inclined to worry about Big Brother are likely to take offence. Tony Blackburn, a radio DJ and car buff, asked the paper: "What are they going to do next? Start putting chips in people to make sure we are eating properly?"

The Department for Transport (DfT) is co-ordinating the project, the main impetus for which appears to have come from the police and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, the Sunday Times said.

The paper said the first part of an initial feasibility study, an 85-page document drafted by the Association of Chief Police Officers, is already complete and lists 47 possible applications for EVI.

Written by Superintendent Jim Hammond, head of Sussex traffic police (who another paper said is renowned for a draconian approach to speed limit enforcement on his patch), it acknowledges "Big Brother concerns" but sets out the benefits - stolen cars could quickly be traced and uninsured drivers would automatically be identified, the Sunday Times said.

It also notes that cars driven by terrorist suspects or drug smugglers could be monitored even in Europe if, as officials in Brussels envisage, EVI is introduced across the European Union, the paper added.

The Sunday Times said the DfT has hired management consultants (PA Consulting, according to other sources) to co-ordinate the development of the system, which it is thought could become operational by 2007.

The paper said new vehicles could have identification chips, containing unique driver details, embedded in their chassis, while older vehicles could have "tagged" number plates [licence tags] installed when they had an MoT test [Britain's annual safety inspection for cars aged three years and older].

The existing network of roadside sensors, set up by traffic-monitoring companies [such as Trafficmaster] and the Highways Agency, would require minimal modification to be used for EVI tracking, the Sunday Times noted.

The newspaper said the government is likely to face opposition from motoring groups. "We need to have an open discussion about what this technology is being used for, who is being tracked and for what purpose, and what could be the hidden agenda," Bert Morris, deputy director of the AA Motoring Trust, reportedly said.

Al Clarke, a spokesman for the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, told the Sunday Times: "It is a case of whether society wants to accept it. We support speed cameras as a means of deterrence but not installing a fruit machine for the Inland Revenue or Customs in every car."

The DfT confirmed to the newspaper that EVI was being considered.

Liberty, the civil rights organisation, told the Sunday Times: "This could turn every driver into a potential suspect." It also warned that motorists' details held on a central computer could form the basis of a "stalkers' charter" if accessed by hackers.

In a separate in-depth look at the proposal, the Sunday Times said that, in June, Alistair Darling, the transport secretary, finally admitted he was seriously considering introducing tolls on roads after 2010 and that people could be tracked and charged by satellite.

But according to those involved in the EVI project, road pricing is a small part of a far wider agenda.

The paper said EVI is set to trigger a fierce debate about how far civil liberties should be infringed in the interests of stamping out crime and increasing safety - the police argue it will allow them to track down a terrorist suspect, drug smuggler or car thief. They could type in the electronic ID number of a car, wait until it passed one of thousands of roadside sensors, then pick up the perpetrator.

The 10% of uninsured drivers who push up premiums by £30 for everyone else would quickly be identified, while dangerous cars without MoTs would be forced off the roads. About 26% of all crime is vehicle related and 30% of stolen vehicles are never recovered, the Sunday Times noted.

But the paper said motoring organisations believe this is a high price to pay for the thousands of drivers who could be ensnared daily for relatively minor offences. They already claim many speed cameras — a far less ruthless device than EVI — are simply a tool for raising money.

The Sunday Times said a report commissioned by the Department for Transport from PA Consulting identifies six types of technology — from barcodes to radio chips and even mini-satellite transmitters — that could be used for EVI and each would electronically communicate a car's registration number, make and colour, tax status, MoT, insurance details and registered owner and address. The relative costs and merits of each system are being calculated by a second PA Consulting study.

All but the most sophisticated in-car technology would require roadside sensors, networks that have already been set up by traffic-monitoring companies and the Highways Agency on major routes, the paper said.

On motorways the government would only need to use a sensor before and after each slip road to catch speeding motorists, the Sunday Times said, adding that a computer database containing details of every driver would communicate with the sensors and check that each vehicle was legal.

The paper noted that Hills Number Plates, the country's largest plate supplier, began selling a microchipped plate earlier this year that could be used for EVI - if bought in large numbers, the plates cost only an extra £5 each.

Fitting Britain's 37.5 million licensed vehicles with the plates could be almost covered in a year if the Treasury managed to reclaim the £185 million it loses in unpaid vehicle excise duty annually, the Sunday Times noted.

Ominously, the paper noted that, if the British government can persuade society of the benefits of EVI it could let in similar initiatives - the Home Office has already held discussions with mobile (cell) phone firms, computer companies and boat manufacturers about implanting chips.

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