As surveillance technology increases, public engagement over how we use it is crucial

We should embrace what better surveillance technology offers, but it must be done in an environment where there is transparency, consent and understanding.

Just because we can does it mean we should? The benefits of surveillance have limits, argues Tony Porter
Just because we can does it mean we should? The benefits of surveillance have limits, argues Tony Porter

I was appointed surveillance camera commissioner for England and Wales by the Home Secretary in March 2014 and I'm required to ensure that surveillance camera systems, such as CCTV, automatic number plate recognition, body-mounted videos and drones, comply with the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice.

The Code sets out 12 guiding principles that provide a coherent and comprehensive framework to enable good and transparent decision-making that give the public confidence that cameras are used appropriately.

Surveillance cameras are everywhere in the UK.

A survey by the British Security Industry Association, carried out three years ago, estimated that there are up to six million CCTV cameras in the UK.

It’s said that in an urban area on a busy day a person could have their image captured by around 300 cameras on 30 different systems.

We do live in a surveillance society.

In the three years since the survey we’ve seen body-worn video (BWV) rolled out by most police forces and by other organisations, as well as the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) take off; and there’s automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras, too.

That figure of six million can only have gone up.

These numbers are indicative of the scale of surveillance, yet give no real indication whether surveillance is necessary, nor of compliance with good practice, or legislative requirements, or meeting any standards at all.

We live in a time where the terrorist threat in the UK is severe and where organised criminals are more organised than ever.

So, it’s extremely important that the country is safe and law enforcement agencies are able to protect communities and citizens.

I spent 30 years in the police, so I get the use of technology in supporting the executive arm of the state – supporting investigations and providing reassurance.

We’re on the cusp of technical advancements that are changing what surveillance cameras do and how they process data – matching faces to databases, linking with other technology and datasets.

This would have sounded like science fiction a few years ago, but now it’s real and it has the potential to keep our cities and inhabitants safer.

This new technology and the new capabilities we have out our fingertips can have great societal benefits when we think about safer or 'smarter' cities.

Although, when people are seeing stories in the media about invasion of privacy – TVs monitoring conversations, Snowden, Wikileaks and so on – transparency around why and how this technology is used is crucial.

What do I mean by transparency? Well, let people know why you are using surveillance cameras.

Publish information on websites, have the right signage in place, tell people how cameras are keeping them safe.

Engage with citizens. Consult them.

I’m not a Luddite and I truly believe that we should embrace what these developments offer, but it must be done in an environment where there is transparency, consent and understanding.

Just because we can does it mean we should?

Tony Porter is the surveillance camera commissioner for England and Wales


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