More CCTV Power For Home Office
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The police and Home Office are to press for regulatory powers that will insist that every one of the 4.2 million CCTV cameras in Britain is upgraded so it can be deputised to gather police evidence and provide a vehicle for emerging technologies that will automatically identify people and detect if they are doing anything suspicious.
The CCTV strategy for crime reduction, which is expected to be published in December after a joint review by the Home Office and the Association of Chief Police Officers, is also expected to be critical of the way the law governing the use of CCTV has been managed by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).
The ICO has repeatedly asked the Department of Constitutional Affairs (DCA) for powers of inspection so it can check that people’s CCTV systems are being used properly – not just so that they are fit for the purpose of crime detection, but also that they are not intruding on people’s privacy. But the DCA had refused.
Even if the ICO was given the power to inspect people’s CCTV installations, it could not afford to do the work. Neither is the government willing to foot the bill of upgrading the many public CCTV networks using old technology.
Moreover, public funding would not fund private CCTV operators, which are more often found by the police to be inadequate when they turn to them for evidence.
So the CCTV review will suggest some sort of self-funding regime. This could mean that CCTV operators might have to pay a higher registration fee than the yearly £35 they pay to the ICO. Fines could also be charged to those who fail their inspections.
The review is also expected to call for a public debate on CCTV, which should please the ICO after it said that British society was being fundamentally changed by the rapid growth of surveillance and that we should pause for thought before it’s too late.
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 the review would also try to address.