CCTV: is it really spiralling out of control?

1987 wasn’t a great year, to be frank, what with the Stock Market crash in the States (how ironic that the movie Wall Street hit our cinema screens at the same time), the King’s Cross London Underground fire, special envoy Terry Waite’s kidnapping in Beirut and the horrific Zeebrugge ferry disaster.

On a more positive note, 1987 witnessed my first year at university and, lest I forget – and possibly incur the wrath of millions of Bart, Homer and Marge disciples – The Simpsons made its TV debut.

In terms of what transpired in our security world, 1987 was pretty monumental. Why? We witnessed – no pun intended – the very first UK town centre CCTV system installed across King’s Lynn with a view towards protecting its 40-odd thousand citizens.

Since then, of course, CCTV’s presence in the public domain has burgeoned both in terms of the number of cameras involved and the quality of the technology that lies within them (which is quite superb). Positively, specific systems operators are now licensed and regulated by the Government.

These regulated operators in unison with top quality cameras have given rise to myriad success stories of more and more criminals being brought to justice by way of all-seeing ‘Eyes in the Sky’.

Buy-in from members of the public

Key to the ongoing success of CCTV has been, is and always will be buy-in from the public – the people being watched. As citizens, we all need to know that surveillance is both appropriate and proportionate in its deployment.

It must also be the case that camera system operators, and those who use the information duly captured, demonstrate integrity in doing so at all times – and are held to account.

All of which is why the current UK coalition Government is committed to the further regulation of CCTV by way of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, and is presently seeking views on a draft Code of Practice focused on surveillance.

That Code is built squarely upon 12 guiding principles. Interestingly, and for the first time, the notion of ‘surveillance by consent’ is brought into play. There’s an obvious parallel here, then, with the ethics behind ‘policing by consent’.

The consultation period – which closes on 21 March – takes place while surveillance commissioner Andrew Rennison’s comments (reported in The Independent just before Christmas) remain fresh in the memory.

If you’re not committing a crime, what’s the problem?

The commissioner has stated that the proliferation of HD surveillance systems – and facial recognition technologies – in public spaces could result in a backlash from citizens.

“The technology has overtaken our ability to regulate it,” said Rennison in the broadsheet. HD cameras are “popping up all over the place”, asserted the commissioner, with the exponential growth of high power megapixel cameras potentially becoming an issue around Article 8 of the Human Rights Act (relating to the protection of family and private life).

Of course, discussions around ‘The Surveillance State’ have surfaced time and again. They’re not likely to disappear. Indeed, across the years I’ve chaired numerous industry debates on this topic – all of them impassioned affairs.

At one of those debates I suggested that the proliferation of CCTV cameras in public spaces isn’t an issue if – like myself – you happen to be a law-abiding citizen and are behaving appropriately. Some would assert that such a suggestion is perhaps a touch naive.

In all honesty, I would argue that neither the number of cameras monitoring us nor the inevitable advance of technology is the crux of the matter. Rather, it’s what subsequently happens to the images, data, information – call it what you will – gathered as a result of that process that really matters.

The Protection of Freedoms Act is to be welcomed, as is the draft Code of Practice on surveillance.

Certainly, the balancing act that has to be struck for CCTV – between the need to enhance public space safety and, at the same time, safeguard privacies – is far from an easy task, but those two outcomes are not mutually exclusive.

Let’s never forget the vital information gathered by CCTV during 7/7 and the London riots of August 2011. Properly regulated, deployed and used CCTV is one of the very best crime-fighting tools at our disposal.

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