The coalition government, as part of its plans to "roll back the over-intrusive powers of the State", has announced that it will remove supervision of CCTV from the remit of the Information Commissioner and establish a new Surveillance Camera Commissioner.
The government also intends to publish a new code of conduct for use of CCTV and arguably scarier Automatic Numberplate Recognition (ANPR) technology, to which the new Cameras Commissioner and those regulated will work. The Home Office has today announced a public consultation on the Code, seeking input from interested parties.
According to the Home Office and James Brokenshire, Crime Prevention Minister, the immediate concern is with use of overt camera systems by local authorities and police. Covert camera surveillance (by government operatives, anyway) is already dealt with under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) and fairly closely controlled already.
The Coalition acknowledges that there are also vast numbers of privately-owned surveillance cameras across the UK, but these are seen as less of a concern from the privacy point of view than the council or police ones in most cases. The government says that to start with only the local authorities and the plods will be compelled to comply with the new Code: "For other bodies, initially at least, adoption of the Code will be a matter of self regulation."
The public consultation document, available here (Word doc) says that there will be several main thrusts to the new Code. Firstly, anyone wanting to establish new CCTV/ANPR cameras will have to go through a checklist showing that the kit is actually necessary, that people have been consulted appropriately, cost/benefit analysis etc.
Then the Code will need to reflect the existing Data Protection Act, possibly making use of the existing ICO rulebook on use of cameras or at any rate making sure it doesn't conflict with the ICO and the DPA. There may also be rules on transparency, for instance requiring public bodies to reveal where all their cameras are and why, what they can see etc.
Finally the Code will cover the vexed question of standards. The government plainly states as an aspiration that there should be common standards on surveillance imagery quality, compression, formats etc. This is not the case at present, and this fact is probably the main reason that most of Blighty is not in fact a Jason Bourne or Spooks style panopticon where faceless government operatives sitting in a control somewhere can instantly call up real-time video of any location they choose.
The reality at the moment is one in which many cameras' imagery is not stored at all, or if it is it is stored locally and erased quickly. Even where images can be retrieved later, this will typically be a case of footsore cops or spooks physically retrieving or copying disks, tapes etc and often having to wade through a lengthy and perhaps technically challenging conversion process before they can make much use of the information.
Even after all this, pictures are often too blurry to identify people (as opposed, for instance, to simply revealing that someone is there - which may well have been all the installer actually wanted).
Lack of common technical standards in the area of general CCTV - ANPR, being mainly a police technology referencing central databases, is much further down the road - might be seen by many as almost a de facto safeguard against excessive state intrusion. Moves to establish proper standards and rely instead on official compliance to minimise abuses could be seen by some as a retrograde step, rather than one designed to protect privacy and roll back the intrusive state.
Meanwhile, for now at least, if it isn't the council or the cops upsetting you you're out of luck. To begin with the Surveillance Camera Commissioner isn't interested in your nosey neighbour's cameras or the ones in the cornershop.
Full details on the Code of Conduct consultation - including how to chip in should you wish to - can be found here. ®