UK surveillance commish asks CCTV operators to please be good

I have no enforcement powers, so pretty, pretty please

Photograph by Caroline Alves - (https://flic.kr/p/7b1pvY)

The Surveillance Camera Commissioner has written to local authority chief executives, reminding them of their duty to "pay regard" to the surveillance camera code of practice.

Tony Porter, appointed as the first Surveillance Camera Commissioner in March 2014, has circulated a letter reminding those who are responsible for ensuring that their systems adhere to the surveillance camera code of practice to do just that, if they'd be so kind.

The letter reminds authorities that they have a statutory duty to follow the Home Office issued code, which outlines twelve guiding principles for using surveillance camera systems "with a view to achieving surveillance by consent".

While the government site for the Surveillance Camera Commissioner describes the office, which was created under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, as being instituted "to further regulate CCTV" it also reveals that the commissioner has no enforcement powers, and cannot inspect CCTV operators to check they are complying with his code.

Talking to The Register, Porter admitted that while an office press release said he had visited "numerous local authorities over the past year [and seen] lots of compliance with the code at a working level" he has also seen a lot of non-compliance.

"Even some of the highest performers have non-conformance notices," said Porter.

Speaking at an event hosted by the National Security Inspectorate, a non-government certification body on 10 March this year, Porter acknowledged that "one thing that has been levelled at the code and my role is that it lacks teeth. This is a fair comment I think. I don’t have any powers of sanction or inspection. So if a relevant authority is not paying due regard to the code of practice there is not much I can do."

As for what he'd like, the dual power of inspection and enforcement notices would be enough, suggested Porter, who told The Register that in his work engaging with the industry he recognises that it something that is really wanted.

The surveillance camera code of practice was published to ensure "that individuals and wider communities have confidence that surveillance cameras are deployed to protect and support them, rather than spy on them".

While relevant authorities have a duty to pay due regard to the code, the majority of CCTV operators are merely encouraged to voluntarily submit to it.

Porter has acknowledged that this means the code only covers "around five per cent of cameras" which are recording in the public space.

The proliferation of private surveillance systems has lead Porter to recognise that his "single biggest challenge [is] voluntary adoption of the surveillance camera code of practice," he noted in his annual report to the Home Secretary – one of his statutory duties.

In the section of his annual report titled Future Challenges, Porter notes the increased domestic use of surveillance cameras, the use of body-worn cameras, the economic ease with which people can purchase unmanned aerial vehicles – and also the increasing use of automatic facial recognition systems, as part of what he believes will form the meat of his work in the future.

Speaking at an event hosted by RESPECT (Rules, Expectations & Security through Privacy-Enhanced Convenient Technologies) on 20 April, the commissioner said:

It's said the UK has the most surveillance in the world – "One Nation Under CCTV" as a famous street artist once daubed on a wall in London – those of you with a penchant for street art will immediately know that was Banksy.

And that resonates with me somewhat, it’s true. CCTV and other types of surveillance camera are everywhere and here to stay.

Porter added to The Register that a "robust review" was needed of the CCTV systems which had "proliferated in the nineties."

Emma Carr, director of Big Brother Watch, told The Register: "The sheer number of CCTV cameras in the UK makes it almost impossible for the regulator to be on top of all misconduct. A more achievable aim is for complaints of misconduct to be followed up quickly and effectively and for the outcome of that investigation and possible enforcement to be made public." ®

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