A very interesting piece in today’s Guardian revealing that the man in charge of surveillance is worried that the general public are too complacent about the ever growing number of devices used to monitor our movements, whether on the roads, using public transport or buying our groceries and of course on the internet.
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.”
He said he had also challenged senior officers on the transparency of the use of automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) systems. “It is seen as a valuable tool, but the police should be identifying how many cameras there are,” Porter said.
“It is wrong not to be transparent because it impacts not just on the motorists, but on the whole psyche of the community. It is very dangerous to walk into a datafied society, where everybody is a number and everybody can be linked via ANPR to facial recognition, to another thing.”
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.”
Porter also pleaded with those who got drones for Christmas to use them responsibly. “You might say ‘it’s just a toy’ but used repeatedly, hovering over a neighbour’s house, [it] is going to cause an issue. You should use it with a great deal of sensitivity.”
Porter argued that new technology must have the consent of the public. “To knock it back is Luddite, but you need a close examination of what’s going on.”
The role of the surveillance commissioner, which was created under the coalition agreement “to roll back the over-intrusive powers of state”, has been questioned by civil rights campaigners. Isabella Sankey, director of policy at Liberty, said Porter had been handed an impossible job because he had no enforcement powers.
“He seems genuinely interested in the issues. But there are hardly any powers that he can exercise. Meanwhile, new innovative use of CCTV is running with itself and nothing in the regulation can keep up with that,” she said.
Porter accused Liberty of being defeatist, saying: “I get irked by this idea that it’s a toothless role … if it isn’t working, it’s within my gift to request greater powers.” But he added: “It is difficult to legislate because the technology is moving so fast.”
Porter also rejected as “bonkers” any suggestion he could not champion privacy because of his background, which included a stint as counter-terrorism coordinator for the London Olympics. He said he was more likely to raise standards because he understood the “labyrinthine politics of covert and overt surveillance”.
Porter said he took a pay cut to take the job, which comes with a £90,000 salary – pro-rated to three days a week even though he works full-time in the role. “Everyone is impacted by surveillance. I want to set a new standards framework and bring the rest up to the best. The UK has some of the most surveillance cameras per head in the developed world. That reputation spurs me on to make sure I make a difference. If I don’t make an impact I won’t want to hang around.”