Revealed: UK councils shrug at privacy worries, strap on body cams

Of 227 snooping local authorities, only a third cared how it might affect the public

More than half of the UK’s local authorities have used body-worn cameras, with only a third of them having considered the privacy impact on the public, according to best practice.

The rush to use body-worn video (BWV) by local authorities is not being scrutinised closely enough, according to civil liberties group Big Brother Watch, which found that 227 local government authorities have used the technology.

Research released today, resulting from answers from 412 (98 per cent) of them, reveals local authorities across the UK have purchased 3,760 cameras, spending almost £1.8m of taxpayers’ cash to do so.

Considering council’s historical abuse of RIPA powers, Big Brother Watch warned that “councils have a poor track record of using heavy-handed surveillance tactics and are often lackadaisical with their approach to protecting personal data. Scrutiny of new capabilities should be a number one priority.”

Despite best privacy law practice being to complete a Privacy Impact Assessment before engaging in such an activity, almost two-thirds of those authorities, 150, were not confident of whether they had even completed a PIA to establish whether the surveillance was in compliance with the law.

Councils’ move into the body-cam world sees them following the police in London and Manchester, of which Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said: “This technology is already helping drive down complaints against officers and making them more accountable, as well as helping to gather better evidence for swifter justice.”

At the moment, councils have no statutory obligation – under either the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice [PDF] or the Information Commissioner’s CCTV Code of Practice [PDF] – to complete a PIA, which Big Brother Watch recommended.

This would potentially prevent situations such as has occurred with over a fifth of local authorities, who have held footage for longer than 31 days, which is the guidance for police forces.

The report states:

We understand that deploying body-worn cameras in order to protect staff from verbal or physical abuse may have validity; no member of staff should feel unsafe at work. But the decision by some councils to equip staff with the cameras in order to film people dropping litter, walking dogs, parking or to monitor people’s recycling, in order to use the ‘evidence’ to issue a fine, we would argue is a disproportionate use of an intrusive surveillance capability and a potential breach of the privacy of law-abiding citizens.

Big Brother Watch’s chief executive, Renate Samson, said: “Despite repeated warnings about misuse of surveillance powers, we have found that once again councils are choosing to use powerful law enforcement tools with little consideration of privacy. Using body-worn cameras to protect people’s safety is one thing,” Samson added, “but widespread filming of people’s behaviour in order to issue fines is simply not proportionate.”

The organisation has recommended that a well-publicised public consultation take place before body-worn cameras are considered by councils, and that a trial should take place before body-worn cameras are used on a permanent basis.

Additionally, Big Brother Watch said that non-evidential footage should be deleted after 31 days, and that local authorities should publish easily understandable statistics about how body-worn cameras are being used. ®

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