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Academic turns up volume on CCTV Bill proposal

Dragging the cameras out of the data shadows

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Part of the problem with data shadows is the feeling of Kafkaesque powerlessness they can cast over their subjects. This happens because of the one-sided power relationship between system and subject, as well as its inflexibility. The problem described by Adams was one in which the identity of the data shadow is divorced from the one a person holds dear, yet still has an intimate effect on the subject.

Referring to the work of Joshua Meyrowitz of the University of New Hampshire, Adams noted that a person's identity is usually a "collusion between the intent of the person holding the identity and the perception of those interacting with them" - a compromise, in other words between a person's self view and the view others have of them.

This should be the starting point for the regulation of all surveillance operations, said Adams. People are used to being able to negotiate their identities with the malleable world around them.

"The debate about data protection, focusing on the privacy aspect as it often does, ignores the potential impact on the psyche of the observed and on the attitudes of those around them to both correct and incorrect information," he said.

Until now, even the simple idea of CCTV has escaped the clutches of recent bills that might have had it tethered - the Data Protection Act 1998, Freedom of Information Act 2000, and Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 - noted Adams.

Furthermore, the Court of Appeal's Durant vs FSA ruling in 2003 annulled the strict interpretation of the DPA by which the Information Commissioner tried to stake its authority over CCTV operators. So now it's possible to get caught in the periphery of a CCTV camera and yet have no rights to privacy, he said.

So Adams proposed some measures that might be included in a CCTV Bill. It should make it an offence to take covert recordings on private premises, so people would be prevented, say, from videoing their dinner guests; likewise, covert cameras shouldn't be permitted in semi-private places like offices; while cameras should only be used in public places when absolutely necessary and their deployment was "proportional" - i.e. not excessive.

As for public places, where they are equally "ephemeral and immediate" as one another, people have traditionally enjoyed the "anonymity of the crowd". Adams said surveillance ought to be balanced by the same reciprocal social control - by giving the public square the means to watch the watchers. ®

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