The increasing use of surveillance technology – including body-worn video, drones and number plate recognition systems – risks changing the “psyche of the community” by reducing individuals to trackable numbers in a database, the government’s CCTV watchdog has warned.
In his full first interview as surveillance commissioner, Tony Porter – a former senior counter-terrorism officer – said the public was complacent about encroaching surveillance and urged public bodies, including the police, to be more transparent about how they are increasingly using smart cameras to monitor people.
Porter stressed that he was not anti-surveillance and insisted he was helping to improve standards by encouraging the adoption of a voluntary code. But he added: “The lack of public awareness about the nature of surveillance troubles me.”
Porter, who was appointed to the independent role in March, is responsible for overseeing around 100,000 publicly operated CCTV cameras out of total of up to 6m surveillance cameras nationwide. He said: “When people say ‘the public love CCTV’, do they really know what it does and its capability? Do they know with advancing technology, and algorithms, it starts to predict behaviour?”
He said he was very nervous about the “burgeoning use of body-worn videos [BWV]”, not just by the police but by university security staff, housing and environmental health officers – and even supermarket workers.
“If people are going round with surveillance equipment attached to them, there should be a genuinely good and compelling reason for that. It changes the nature of society and raises moral and ethical issues … about what sort of society we want to live in … I’ve heard that supermarkets are issuing staff with body-worn videos. For what purpose? There is nothing immediately obvious to me.”
Security staff on patrol at a number of universities, including Newcastle, Essex, Bath and Bangor, have started wearing body cameras and microphones in an attempt to reduce fights and crime on campuses. Similarly, fears of antisocial behaviour at an Asda supermarket in Dundee led to security staff being issued with BWVs.
Porter said he had had “robust” arguments with universities about the use of such cameras and questioned whether they were “conducive to creating a learning environment”. He said: “There’s a security argument, but there’s also a personal freedom argument. Have universities been transparent with students and parents? It is very important to corral all those using it [BWV] and bring home to them their obligations.”
Porter, a former counter-terrorism commander with Greater Manchester police, is also working with police forces piloting the use of BWVs as a way of increasing police accountability, particularly firearms officers. Porter said he had insisted that police publish privacy impact assessments on how they are using BWVs, and added that none of the forces involved had “got it absolutely right” as they were “navigating massive complexities”.
He said he was concerned that the experiment could harm community policing by making the public reluctant to talk if they were confronted with “a million pixels up their nostrils”.
Porter added: “I challenge chief constables on what happens if the cameras are stolen – how are they going to ensure that highly sensitive material is protected.”
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