The current Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, has used a pre-election press conference to promote the use of CCTV for law enforcement, accompanied by Katie Piper, who was the victim of an acid-throwing attack. Based on the BBC report, the implication is that CCTV played a part in the arrest of her attackers – though this is not explicitly stated. Nor does the article mention the conspiracy between Katie Piper’s violent boyfriend and the accomplice who threw the acid (in other words, the attack was instigated by someone already known to, and close to Katie Piper).
Her story is tragic, and the violent assaults on her despicable and repellent. I have deep sympathy for her, and huge admiration for the courage and determination with which she has rebuilt her life and established a charity to help victims of disfiguring injuries. I cannot blame her for wanting to publicise her perspective on CCTV.
That said, there are things about this press conference which make me profoundly uneasy. Clearly, it would be wrong to say that the Home Secretary is exploiting Ms Piper. She has her own clear agenda, and is obviously confident in expressing her independent view – and all credit to her for doing so.
I think my unease is more about the use the Home Secretary is making of Ms Piper’s case. First, as I say, the strong implication is that the criminals were caught and identified because of CCTV footage. The account and images reproduced in this article, though, suggest that CCTV can have been, at best, an incidental part of the evidence leading to the identification of the acid-thrower; there is no mention of Ms Piper’s boyfriend himself appearing on CCTV footage at all – because according to her testimony, he telephoned her to ask what she was wearing, so that he could pass that information on to his accomplice to identify her.
In other words, the link between the attacker and the boyfriend is most likely to have been established by police investigation, not through CCTV evidence.
The Home Secretary also weaves a bizarre path between claiming that Britain is getting safer and safer, and warning that unless CCTV is spread still further, we are all at risk, by implication, of having acid thrown at us. The Conservatives, he says, are guilty of a ‘fundamental deceit’ in claiming that Britain is ‘broken’, and David Cameron is wrong to use ‘a series of tragic incidents to try and paint the worst possible picture of our society’.
Forgive me if I’m misunderstanding this, Mr Johnson, but aren’t you using a tragic incident to try and convince us that the future of our society depends on ubiquitous CCTV coverage, in the face of factual evidence from the Metropolitan Police and the Home Office itself that its effectiveness has decreased even with increased deployment?
It is also, I think, deeply regrettable that Ms Price, either of her own will or prompted by the Labour PR team, resorted to the “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” argument. As I say, I have no right – or wish – to question her motivation for doing so, but I feel entitled to question the Home Secretary’s right to legislate on that basis – and here’s the logic for doing so:
More cameras mean more information, about more citizens, being viewed by more watchers. If that is not the case, the cameras are pointless and, arguably, illegal. If it is the case, it increases the probability of CCTV data being inappropriately used – in some cases, to enable or commit crime rather than prevent it. As for “nothing to hide”, think of this: is it a matter of public record when you are in your house and when you are not? Can you think of any circumstances under which that information might put you or your property at risk?
It is disingenuous of the Home Secretary to formulate the policy argument with no reference to this risk and others like it. It is dangerous for him to formulate policy on the basis that CCTV can be deployed without corresponding spending on governance measures – at a time when we know we face spending cuts which will cut exactly that kind of job.
The Home Secretary proposes that people should be allowed to petition for the installation of more CCTV cameras. It’s tempting to write that off as a piece of pre-election headline-grabbing – but that would be irresponsible.
If Mr Johnson is serious, the serious response is this:
- any measure allowing such petitions should be balanced by legal requirements to define and cost the governance regime which will apply to the installation over its lifetime;
- it should explain how the data captured will be managed under applicable data protection and human rights law, and who will meet the costs of doing so over the lifespan of the data [NB – not just the lifespan of the camera installation];
- it should mandate the labelling of all CCTV installations (whether privately or publicly operated) with the purpose of the system, and the identity and contact details of the operator;
- it should explain what regulatory body is responsible for regulating CCTV data collection, retention, disclosure and deletion;
- it should explain what regulatory body would be responsible for identifying and shutting down ‘orphan’ CCTV installations;
- and it should establish a corresponding right for citizens to petition for the removal of CCTV systems.
If he is serious, he should explain why the UK has no legal framework for the governance of CCTV installations, just an unenforced and widely-ignored code of conduct.
I should stress – I’m not inventing anything new here; others, including graphiclunarkid and SpyBlog havewritten excellent pieces on what is wrong with UK CCTV and what could be done to improve matters. Indeed, given that some of their advice is two years old now, it is depressing that the Home Secretary has disregarded it in favour of a superficial pre-election PR gesture.
Allowing the proliferation of unregulated cameras is cheap and easy – especially if you are not concerned about increased risk and lack of effectiveness. If the Home Secretary were serious, he would ban the further deployment of CCTV until there is a governance regime in place which makes it safe and effective. The problem is, he could not afford such a regime even if it existed.