Surveillance watchdog urges Home Office to wake up to invasion of privacy risks
Amid technology advances Tony Porter calls for extension of remit of Surveillance Camera Code of Practice
The Surveillance Camera Commissioner (SCC) for England and Wales has urged the Home Office to pay more attention to how advances in technology may lead to privacy breaches.
Tony Porter – who scrutinises surveillance activity in public places including CCTV, street furniture, body-worn cameras and analytics – said the tech must be used “sensitively and proportionately”.
In an interview with Public Technology, Civil Service World’s sister publication, Porter outlined the work he has done to help police and local authorities comply with the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice, which was published in 2013.
He said: “My next ambition is that the relevant authorities pay due regard to the code. I really want to see the Home Office pay due regard to it, recognise its aims, and support me and the public in realising them.”
“We are talking about human rights, and the power of the state.”
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Porter’s job is to encourage compliance with the code, which statutorily covers local government, police forces and the National Crime Agency, but not other parts of the public sector such as NHS trusts and higher education establishments.
“The essence of the role is to ensure that there is surveillance with consent,” he said, adding that despite overwhelming public support for CCTV, people don’t understand the capabilities of newer, biometrically enabled kit such as drone technology, mobile-phone tracking and automatic number plate recognition (ANPR).
The code lays out 12 guiding principles for the use of surveillance, including calling for “as much transparency in the use of a surveillance camera system as possible”, and stating that “no more images and information should be stored than that which is strictly required for the stated purpose” of a system.
To encourage compliance, the SCC has introduced measures such as a self-assessment tool for local authorities, which have seen compliance among councils shoot up from 2% to 93%, and has conducted a survey of the 43 police forces to identify areas of non-compliance.
The first UK arrest to take place as a result of automated facial-recognition software was in April 2017. The tech is still being piloted, but Porter said the police haven’t done enough to engage the public in the work.
“They have not been transparent enough about the positives, and the negatives have been shut out,” he said.
Porter also told Public Technology that he wants to see the code of practice extended to cover other parts of the public sector.
“I have written to the [home secretary] saying there is no reason on earth why a parish council is covered by the code, but not an institution [such as a hospital] that has people at their most vulnerable, in a public space, being seen by security guards with body-worn cameras,” he said.
“A lot of trusts also have drones and ANPR. This must be used sensitively and proportionately. I am still trying to push this government to accept that the capability for invasion of privacy is significant.”
Porter is a former police officer and assistant chief constable for Greater Manchester Police who was a security executive at Barclays before taking on the SCC position in 2014.
He heads an independent team of five people that is housed at the Home Office and works with an in-house policy team at the department.
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