Surveillance by consent: Commissioner launches CCTV strategy for England and Wales

Guidelines issued on ensuring the public is protected, not spied on

“There is a gap between what exists and what should exist,” according to the UK's commissioner responsible for ensuring that surveillance cameras are protecting members of the public, rather than spying on them.

Tony Porter, who sees that public authorities follow the government's rules on operating surveillance cameras, on Tuesday published a 16-page draft national strategy [PDF] to raise regulatory standards regarding the surveillance of public spaces.

Only a year ago, less than two per cent of public authorities operating surveillance cameras were doing so in compliance to “any British standard” according to Porter, who says that as of today 85 per cent are now demonstrably “having regard” for the Home Office's Surveillance Camera Code of Practice [PDF].

While this was an enormous improvement, Porter told The Register that he was still hearing “too many stories of a default response to public space surveillance when it's inappropriate,” however, and said it was his job “to drive out that approach.”

Despite a “commendable effort by different groups to self-regulate” Porter is creating a national strategy to coordinate efforts “right from the manufacturer, through to the installer and designer to the end-user. There's a lack of coordination at the moment and it damages standards, confuses training, and the end product is you don't get good quality surveillance that is there to protect the public and make them feel safe.”

In the late-80s comic V For Vendetta, the ubiquity of CCTV cameras in England was a key symbol of the nation as a totalitarian surveillance state. A few years later, during a real-life explosion in the numbers of CCTV cameras, the comic's author Alan Moore would joke that he was responsible for giving the government the idea — but it is not just the public sector watching public spaces.

In 2015, turnover for the video and CCTV surveillance sector topped £2.12bn in the UK. According to the most recent estimates – from 2013 – there are potentially over six million CCTV cameras in the UK, and that is not including body-cam footage, unmanned aerial vehicles, or the automatic number plate recognition system. Porter considers the number of cameras is probably much higher.

Speaking to The Register this morning, Porter explained what “surveillance by consent” meant: “For me, it means that this public space surveillance – which doesn't sit under a specific legislative framework – is trusted by the public to be there for its needs,” Porter said. It means that the community knows that “surveillance is there to protect them, and not spy on them.”

For the public to consent to surveillance, it needs to be satisfied that surveillance cameras are well-run and run for legitimate purposes, according to Porter.

Austerity is provoking local authorities to change their “surveillance approach” according to Porter, who said his office has seen “local authorities cut their camera propositions by £250,000 in a year” but use the code to ensure they're doing so properly. “Where there's a problem is where the public is deceived that there is an adequate surveillance posture,” Porter added.

Such stories are “not uncommon” Porter told us, with councils switching off their CCTV cameras but not telling the community. “Councils maintain cameras that aren't functioning and don't tell the public, previously monitored cameras that are becoming unmonitored,” Porter added.

There is a “lack of awareness around the important of transparency, and a fear that anything to do with surveillance has be spoken about in hushed tones. My position is that anything regarding surveillance has to be shouted from the rooftops.” ®

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