If you’re the kind of person who reads my blog there’s a fair chance that you’ve heard of the Investigatory Powers bill. If not, I suggest you read up about it. It’s a proposed piece of UK legislation for the bulk recording and storage of personal communications data for security purposes. This blog post isn’t about the IP bill though – it’s about something that’s much less controversial and yet already far more ubiquitous – CCTV.

I’ve blogged about CCTV before and was motivated to do so again today after reading about the one year anniversary of the Metropolitan Police’s 300% capacity increase for Automatic Number Plate Recognition after gaining access to Transport for London’s (TfL) network of around 1400 ANPR cameras used for the London Congestion Charge, the Low Emission Zone and other traffic monitoring.

My ongoing concerns include the possibility of the extension of the above system to go beyond sharing just numberplate data to transmitting full images as well as the spread of private-sector pre-crime systems like Facewatch. The concept of that service is to enable the sharing of pictures of potential criminals, and other undesirables, with a central system so that facial recognition can automatically detect them in CCTV covered locations and alert subscribers.

In short I was all set to bemoan not just our continued amble into a surveillance state but the apparent lack of anyone caring about it.

However, in my research I discovered the Big Brother Watch report Are They Still Watching Us. This is a very well put together document that covers the positive and negative impact of CCTV in the UK. The fact that it has an introduction from Surveillance Commissioner Tony Porter speaks volumes.

The report shows that, in some local authorities, the use of CCTV is actually decreasing – although it is quick to point out that this is likely to be due to austerity rather than any principles about free movement in public spaces.

The report makes four key policy recommendations:

  1. Any improvement of systems to include additional capabilities such as smart technology, biometrics or linking systems must consider the increased risk to citizen’s privacy. This should be clearly addressed in the business case and privacy impact assessment.
  2. Local authorities should regularly report statistics on the number of crimes detected, investigated and solved by each camera to demonstrate the necessity.
  3. A single point of contact should be created to oversee CCTV use and resolve complaints.
  4. A single, enforceable Code of Practice which applies to all CCTV cameras should be released.

It goes on to note that since there is no register of the use of CCTV in the UK we don’t know officially how many cameras there. That said, industry estimates show that, while in some areas the density of surveillance is reversing, in London there has been an overall 50%  increase in cameras since 2012 with Hackney now having one camera for every 90 residents.

In his foreword Mr Porter says:

“My team is developing a process – a ‘Passport to Compliance’ – which will allow local authorities to follow an incremental and intelligent approach to considering whether a new surveillance camera system is essential. It begins with the question; ‘why do we want surveillance cameras and is there a legitimate and pressing need for them?’

It will provide a framework and guidance schedule to ensure that every pound of public money spent on surveillance camera systems is spent wisely. It will ensure local authorities comply with the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice. This report neatly highlights the imperative of implementing such a process”

I hope that this report, the work of the Commissioner and the drive for open data in both the UK national and local governments will come together to realign this country’s use of CCTV to something more proportionate, cost effective and respectful of citizen’s rights of free unwatched movement.