Today a new Code of Practice on the use of CCTV comes into force, to sit alongside the new position of Surveillance Camera Commissioner.
The code is a step in the right direction towards bringing proper oversight to the millions of cameras that capture our movements every day. However, with only a small fraction of cameras covered and without any penalties for breaking the code, we hope that this is only the beginning of the process and that further steps will be taken in the future to protect people’s privacy from unjustified or excessive surveillance.
Given that the responsibility for legally enforcing the Data Protection Act with regard to CCTV (apart from private cameras, which remain exempt) will remain with the Information Commissioner, we are concerned that public confidence will not be helped if the process of making a complaint and action being taken is not straightforward. Equally, the situation of private cameras not being subject to regulation, with the only power available to the police to prosecute for harassment, is unsustainable as the number of people using them increases.
The code recognises that one important area to ensure public trust in surveillance is measuring the effectiveness of CCTV. This is an area we highlighted in our report the Price of Privacy, when we called on councils to publish statistics on crime levels where cameras were being used and how many prosecutions were secured. Too often CCTV has been used as a substitute for policing or as a lazy option, instead of a more thorough consideration of how the underlying causes can be addressed. We would much prefer to prevent crime than to have it take place and be caught on camera, or displaced a short distance out of sight.
However, we remain concerned that more needs to be done. We made these arguments in our response to the consultation on the code at every opportunity. The regulator needs real powers to enforce the rules and the code should apply to every CCTV camera, irrespective of who is operating it. We have already seen cases of cameras in school toilets, neighbours involving the police because of cameras on private property and concerns about new marketing technology tracking number plates, yet the code would not apply in any of these situations.
As CCTV technology improves and issues like facial recognition analysis come to the fore, it is essential that people are able to access meaningful redress where their privacy is infringed. The Surveillance Camera Commissioner must be given the powers and the resources to take action otherwise the public will rightly ask if the surveillance state continues to escape accountability.
We hope these issues will be addressed by the Commissioner and that there is a proper discussion about whether he does have adequate powers and resources to do his job, and whether people really are adhering to the code of practice voluntarily.