UK consultation on CCTV: a weak brew?

The UK government has released a consultation document on a ‘Code of practice relating to surveillance cameras’ (CCTV). The closing date for comments in May 25th.

I will go through the document in more detail but there are several initial things to note here:

1. I am interested first of all in the fact that the camera systems are refered to as ‘surveillance cameras’ rather than ‘security cameras’ or ‘safety cameras’ as in many situations I have encountered around the world.

2. This is merely a step toward a state code of practice. The government had promised to ‘regulate’ CCTV, and what many people might have legitimately expected from such a promise was legislation, in other word a statutory footing for surveillance cameras and legal controls. A code of practice is very much at the weak and volunteeristic end of ‘regulation’ if it is regulation at all. The proposed Code itself is really quite weak and presaged on “gradually raising standards to a common level.” with nothing that is mandatory.

3. The document proposes another ‘Commissioner’ to govern surveillance cameras, a ‘Surveillance Camera Commissioner’. This government, despite its avowed attempt to reverse the proliferation of Quangos, seems to want to create another one. One would think that this would naturally fall under the remit of the Information Commissioner, but it appears that the Tory attacks on the ICO (which have been going on in newspapers like The Times for some years and have now spread to other libertarian groups) have been having some effect. Does Britain need another Commissioner in the area of information, surveillance and privacy? I don’t think so. I think we need to clarify the roles of existing Commissioners, and reduce their number – provide adequate budgets and better guidance and division of labour. I suggested a few weeks ago that splitting the ICO into a Surveillance and Privacy Commissioner (which would incorporate the data protection function and absorb all the existing micro-commissions like Surveillance, Interception of Telecommunications and now this new proposed Surveillance Camera Commissioner) and a separate Freedom of Information Commissioner, would be the best solution.

4. The consultation document acknowledges that camera surveillance has increased too rapidly in Britain and has eroded privacy and been overly intrusive. That’s a start. However it also hedges this quite strongly by saying that the government does not intend to limit law enforcement’s abilities. I am not sure the two things are compatible – but I will have to examine the proposals in more detail.

5. The document acknowledges that “CCTV does not always provide the benefits expected of it” but explains this as largely down to technical and operation reasons rather than anything more fundamentally problematic. This is not necessarily justified by evidence or particularly insightful.

6. The document acknowledges that Automatic Number Plate (Licence Plate) Recogntion (ANPR / ALPR) is largely unregulated too and that it connects to all kinds of databases, yet proposes little more than auditable data trails.

7. The document mentions both flying drone cameras / Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and helmet-mounted cameras, but assumes mistakenly that these are ‘niche and novel’. If this can still be said to be true, it will not be for much longer, and the document is overly dismissive of the immediacy of this issue.

8. The document is way too cautious and has the fingerprints of a ‘Sir Humphrey’ bureaucratic avoidance of anything that might ‘frighten the horses’, motivated as it claims to be by “the wish to avoid imposing unreasonable or impracticable bureaucratic or financial burdens on organisations” and recommending “an incremental approach.” It is too late for incrementalism, about 20 years too late in fact.

At first glance, the consultation document appears to be a rather weak brew rather than the strong medicine that is required.