CCTV commish: Bring all surveillance systems under code of practice

Proliferation of video tracking in Blighty 'undermines' efforts to improve

CCTV camera trained on a garden. Photo by Shutterstock

The UK's surveillance camera commissioner has told the British government to adopt a "common sense position" and bring all bodies using surveillance camera systems under its code of practice.

Tony Porter, whose term as commissioner was in 2017 extended for another three years, used his annual report, published yesterday, to call for the Surveillance Camera Code to extend to rail franchises, the health sector and transport hubs.

He also used it to raise concerns about inaccuracies in the UK's use of Automatic Number Plate Regulation (ANPR) technologies and ask for the database to be placed on a statutory footing by the government, as well as lobby for more resourcing for his office.

In the report (PDF), Porter asked the government to take a "more common sense position" as to which bodies have to comply with the SC Code.

At the moment, the so-called relevant authorities are those covered by the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, which include local governments, but not organisations like Transport for London, the health sector or airports.

"It is a nonsense that the smallest of parish councils in England and Wales must have regard to the SC Code in the operation of their surveillance camera systems yet the operators of such huge and intrusive systems that invade upon the every day life of citizens, do not," the report stated.

"The constraints of my regulatory mandate outside of those organisations that are 'relevant authorities'... significantly undermine my ability to bring the necessary influence and leadership where it is sometimes most needed."

Porter praised organisations that had voluntarily adopted the guidance – these include Marks & Spencer and Barnsley Hospital NHS Foundation Trust – but said he was "disappointed" in those that had chosen not to.

Although he said he understood the argument some use not to do it because it wasn't a legal requirement, Porter said it was "both naive and short-sighted".

If all organisations adopted the terms, it would also help drive up standards among manufacturers, installers and consultants, he argued.

"I will continue my energies to encourage voluntary adoption whilst lobbying government for relevant changes to the legislation."

On ANPR – a pet peeve of the commissioner's – Porter noted that its use was growing beyond law enforcement, to road enforcement and managing traffic flows.

This makes it all the more important to make sure its use is transparent and well understood.

"A key concern for me is whether the police understand the volume of misreads or missed reads on the database," he wrote.

In a speech delivered at the ANPR conference last month, Porter said that ANPR accuracy had been quoted at more than 97 per cent, but that this still meant between 750,000 and 1.2 million misreads per day.

"I am very bothered by this. Very bothered indeed, because I know that errors on the hot list could negatively impact on the citizen," he told the conference.

Elsewhere in his annual report, Porter directed a dig at the Home Office over the much-delayed Biometrics Strategy – this should cover facial recognition technology, which is an area of overlap between Porter and the biometrics commissioner, Paul Wiles.

"At the time of writing," Porter said, "I await publication of the Home Office Biometric Strategy, which will, I hope, provide much needed clarity over respective roles and responsibilities in this area."

Commenting on the report, Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, said the work was welcome, but urged the commissioner to take more action against the growing surveillance systems in the country.

"It is an outrage that police forces across the UK are using facial recognition in public spaces – effectively biometric checkpoints – in the absence of any clear legal basis or public consent," she said.

"In addition, TfL, the NHS and schools are operating thousands of surveillance cameras beyond the oversight of the Commissioner, and the state is using cameras on our roads to track and record the car journeys of millions of ordinary, law-abiding citizens.

"This growing, intrusive tracking of the UK's population is unacceptable." ®

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