UK watchdog: Public should wise up about surveillance cameras

The U.K.’s surveillance camera commissioner has warned that British citizens don’t seem to be aware of the implications of being constantly monitored in public places.

Although the crime-fighting efficacy of closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras is debatable, they are everywhere in the U.K. (My favorite “These premises are under 24-hour CCTV surveillance” sign was in the now-closed Orwell pub — named after George — in Islington, London.) The job of the commissioner, Tony Porter, is to ensure that surveillance cameras in public places are used to “protect the public rather than spy on them,” though he doesn’t have any enforcement powers.

In an interview with the Guardian, Porter said he was troubled by “the lack of public awareness about the nature of surveillance”:

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 behavior?

The commissioner said he was worried about the rise of body-worn videos (BWVs), which are increasingly being sported by police, local council officers and even security staff in universities and supermarkets. He said he thought police BWVs – a hot topic in the U.S. recently — could dissuade the public from talking to them, and argued that on-campus BWVs raised questions about personal freedom and transparency. He also called on people who got drones for Christmas to have some sensitivity about their neighbors’ privacy.

Porter also urged more transparency in the police’s automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) systems, saying: “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.”

I’m not sure what to add to that — Porter, a former counter-terrorism coordinator, knows what he’s talking about and he states his warnings well. It’s a pity that he doesn’t have enforcement powers, but hopefully those who do wield power will take what he says to heart, as surveillance regulation develops. Given the way the U.K. is going with online surveillance, though, I’m not feeling too hopeful about that.