The UK and CCTV

Having just got back from a holiday, I looked through the various news feeds, twitter traffic and so on, to see what bloggable stuff has been happening recently. There was no shortage. I could have written something about the winner of NIST’s 5-year competition to find a successor to the SHA-2 hashing algorithm – but that would have turned into a longish piece on risk analysis and mitigation… so perhaps another day. Or I could have picked out Facebook’s inexorable post-IPO slide towards selling your personal data – but you already know how I feel about Facebook… so perhaps another day.

No, for today I eventually settled for a quick comment on the UK’s new Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. Although this seems to have hit the news only insofar as it restricts the use of wheel-clamps on private land, the Act is a multi-headed beast including changes to the law on retention of biometric data, regulation of surveillance cameras, safeguarding of vulnerable groups, and provision for “certain convictions for buggery” to be struck from the record once spent. Yep, seriously. And no, I’m not going to make any reference to the legislative priorities of the coalition government and the anecdotal proclivities of Conservative or Liberal politicians. That would just be cheap and tawdry. So, perhaps another day…

On the face of it, I am glad to see this Act enter the statue books. I am in no doubt that our Freedoms are in desperate need of some legal Protection – the last government’s illiberal and disproportionate policies had a serious impact on civil liberties, and a swing in the opposite direction is long overdue. The coalition’s execution of its commitment to ‘roll back the database state’ has been lacklustre at best, and the threats to civil liberties have continued to grow apace (just think of all the measures that surrounded London’s hosting of the 2012 Olympics). The question is – is the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 the answer?

The section of the Act I want to focus on is Part 2, Chapter 1 – Regulation of CCTV and other surveillance technology. Section 29 describes the government’s obligation to draw up a code of practice for the development and use of such systems. And about time too, you might think – as the only guidance up to now on this topic has been the Information Commissioner’s advice on how the Data Protection Act applies to CCTV systems. The ICO guidance applies – broadly speaking – to any deployer of CCTV. And that raises an interesting question about the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012: why does the Act seek only to regulate public sector bodies, and completely ignore the question of governance of commercially or privately operated surveillance systems? (After all, if it can legislate on private wheel-clamping, why not on private CCTV?).

The Act raises other questions, too. The Act calls for the appointment of a Surveillance Camera Commissioner, who is to be consulted by the Secretary of State when the latter is drawing up the code of practice. The Secretary of State must also consult the Information Commissioner (fair enough) and the Chief Surveillance Commissioner.

The who?

You could be forgiven for not knowing that the UK has a Chief Surveillance Commissioner. Certainly, the impact of that office on the proliferation and regulation of CCTV systems across the UK appears to be negligible. As it turns out, the Commissioner publishes an annual report, and has done so for the last five years. the report for 2010-2011 is online here. However, as you can see from the CSC’s website, the office is primarily concerned with the governance of covert surveillance (including informants and undercover officers)… so one can expect the CSC to have minimal effect on the commercial or non law-enforcement deployment of CCTV systems. The Protection of Freedoms Act does not appear to change the CSC’s remit in any way – so it’s not clear to me how the roles of CSC and Surveillance Camera Commissioner will interact, if at all.

It’s also not clear to me whether the Protection of Freedoms Act covers the deployment of airport body-scanners. As the last few years have shown, these “nudi-scan” machines remain a contentious topic, with public concern over their safety and their practicality. If any public sector surveillance technology was ripe for a more open regime of supervision and accountability, is is surely these – and yet, they don’t appear in the Act at all, as far as I can see.

All in all, the Protection of Freedoms Act addresses some extremely important topics. I hope it is a step in the right direction, but I think it would be a big mistake for the legislators to sit back and congratulate themselves on the completion of a job well done, because the Act is neither flawless nor complete.