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Home Office to grab for more CCTV power

Plods not happy with law, ICO, or surveillance quality

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The police are also concerned that Britain's rise to the top of the league of the world's most eyed societies has happened without anyone being quite aware of what was happening, Gerrard said.

He was, however, in no doubt that he wanted more and better surveillance to strengthen police powers: "Just how effective do we want the police to be?"

"If society's uncomfortable with the police being that effective, then they should say so," said Gerrard.

This compelling argument, combined with a review of the Data Protection Act that the DCA has hinted may weaken existing protections, combine also with the idea expected to be presented in the CCTV review that the ICO might not even be the best authority to take charge of surveillance.

The result could be that the ICO's optimistic grab for public authority over the important issue of civil liberties versus the potential for near-total law enforcement could be checked before it has even got a hold.

The police are of the view that the rules governing CCTV were tacked onto the Data Protection Act and added to the ICO's remit in a bit of a hurry at a time when there was no Surveillance Commissioner and no European Convention of Human Rights. Now there are both, and given that the police think the ICO hasn't done its job of ensuring all the nation's CCTV cameras are good enough for the police, perhaps someone else ought to take responsibility for it?

The options include the Surveillance Commissioner, which keeps an eye on the intelligence services, and the Security Industry Authority, which licences private security firms. Though they lack the one important thing that gives the ICO its authority to govern CCTV operators - custodianship of the Data Protection Act - there is an argument being forwarded as a reason to take CCTV away from the ICO.

It is thought in some quarters that the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) contains provisions enough to prevent people's privacy being abused by CCTV intrusions, and this would allow responsibility for this sort of surveillance to be land-grabbed back from the Data Protection Act and the ICO. It is worth noting, however, that the ECHR has warned publicly that civil libertarians should not rely on it to free them from the clutches of the surveillance state.

Another argument the police are using is that the ICO is a year late delivering a new CCTV Code of Practice, which is being revised to reflect emerging technologies such as facial recognition and behavioural analysis that promise to turn the nation's CCTV cameras into a bionic arm of the law.

Aside from the fact the ICO is short of resources, the other reason why the review is so late is that it is waiting to incorporate the deliberations of the Article 29 Working Party - which advises the European Commission on data protection matters on behalf of the information commissioners in all 25 European member states - on which parts of the data a CCTV camera captures should be considered personal data and therefore protected as someone's private business under the Data Protection Act and the ECHR?

Information commissioners around the world share the ICO's concern about the eye of the state intruding into the private lives of ordinary people.

One of their concerns is the sort of intelligent CCTV technology described above, which Gerrard said the review would also try to address.

"We need to have a system that's more compatible, that makes it easier for the police to access images, and need to consider the possibilities that technology will present us in the future with intelligent CCTV systems."

Proponents of CCTV believe a problem with the old infrastructure is that it is built with analogue technology, whereas digital CCTV systems can be governed by computers that automatically detect who people are and analyse their behaviour to determine if they are doing anything suspicious. Such technology is not yet mature enough, noted Gerrard, but it would be useless when it did arrive if the CCTV infrastructure wasn't in place to handle it.

One gaping hole in Gerrard's argument, however, is that he was unable to say just how much of Britain's CCTV network was useless for police purposes, or how much it would cost to upgrade it. Neither was the CCTV User Group, which represents operators. ®

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