CCTV surveillance poses risks says UK watchdog

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

January 12, 2015

Amid the controversyy surrounding mass surveillance by authorities of Internet traffic and telephone communications, another type of surveillance abuse – CCTV- often gets ignored. In a recent article in the Guardian, the issue is addressed at length in an interview with a key player in the debate, and gives one pause to reflect on just how pervasive this technology is.

Is the technology advancing so rapidly that our every move will be monitored? Is it time for all privacy loving individuals to get concerned? Tony Porter, the new surveillance commissioner certainly thinks so, and is not shy about advocating for his side.

CCTV is a ubiquitous surveillance system throughout the world, but especially prevalent in the UK, which arguably leads the world in per-capita devices. But now the technology has grown to a point where private drones and body-worn video (BWV) is common, especially on school campuses and stores.

Porter posits that these devices pose risks to the ’psyche of the community” by reducing individuals to trackable numbers in a database. As a side note, in response to the shooting of unarmed men by police in the US, President Obama has championed the use of BWVs by police in the hope that utilizing the technology will thwart police overreaction. Whether the rationale is that police will be less likely to employ deadly force in an altercation or they will record evidence of inappropriate actions by police officers in the aftermath of a deadly force incident is unclear.

In his first full interview as surveillance commissioner, Porter, a former senior counter-terrorism officer, stressed that he was not anti-surveillance, but said the public has become complacent about encroaching surveillance and urged public bodies to be more transparent about how they are increasingly using smart cameras to monitor people.

’The lack of public awareness about the nature of surveillance troubles me. When people say they love CCTV, do they really know what it does and its capability? Do they know with advancing technology and algorithms, it starts to predict behavior?

For the record, Porter’s has supervisory authority over more than 100,000 publicly operated CCTV cameras – which is only a fraction of the estimated 6 million cameras nationwide. What is worrisome from Porters perspective is their proliferation in the private domain.

Porter has had ’robust’ arguments with university heads about the use of BWVs by security personnel on campus, and also pointed out the increased use of such cameras in stores. He worries about these intrusive devices stifling learning, ’There’s a security argument, but there’s also a personal freedom argument,’ he opines.

He has similar concerns about drones. ’Every time a drone is operating with a surveillance camera attached to it, then the risk of a privacy impact in a public space rises exponentially.’ What is unsaid and left to the imagination after this interview is the danger posed by the use of drones by ’bad actors’, or that CCTV video content could fall into the wrong hands. Terrorists for example could hone in on traffic patterns of vehicles and individuals in planning their attacks.

Until now the public has blithely lived with the increase of CCTV while focusing on government surveillance of cell phones and email traffic and bulk collection of data. In this context, Porter’s efforts are refreshing and we should heed his warnings. CCTV proliferation, if unchecked and unregulated, proffers the same type of privacy abuses as mass data gathering. It creeps up on individuals, and often the recognition of its dangers is realized too late.

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