SurveillanceWe are watching you: U.K. CCTV strategy

Published 26 October 2016

There are over six million CCTV cameras in the United Kingdom – one CCTV camera for every ten citizens. This number does not include body-cam footage, unmanned aerial vehicles, or the automatic number plate recognition system. Britain has 20 percent of the world’s cameras despite being home to less than one percent of its population. In 2015, turnover for the video and CCTV surveillance sector topped £2.12 billion in the United Kingdom. The government has just released a draft national surveillance camera strategy for England and Wales.

Tony Porter, the U.K. Surveillance Camera Commissioner (SCC), yesterday announced the launching of consultation on a draft national surveillance camera strategy for England and Wales. This strategy aims to provide direction and leadership in the surveillance camera community to enable system operators to understand best practice and their legal obligations (such as those contained within the Data Protection Act and the Private Security Industry Act).

The SCC says that the new strategy also aims to enable the surveillance camera community to demonstrate compliance with the principles of the surveillance camera code of practice and other guidance formulated by government agencies.

The commissioner said his strategic vision is to assure the public that surveillance cameras in public places are there to keep and make them feel safe, and that those cameras are deployed and used responsibly, as well as transparently, in a manner which is proportionate to their legitimate purpose.

The proposed strategy has been divided into ten key work strands each led by sector expert. Objectives have been developed for each strand with a supporting delivery plan setting out specific actions and outputs, which contribute toward achieving the strategic mission. Delivery plans will be completed and published in 2017.

Porter said: “This draft strategy has been ten months in development — I’ve been working with a group of industry experts to get it into shape and now we are ready to consult on it. I welcome views from anyone whether they are an expert in the industry or a member of the public — the strategy is designed to benefit them — so their input will be invaluable to making sure it meets their needs when we begin work on delivering its objectives in 2017.”

Porter told the Register that a year ago, less than 2 percent of public authorities operating surveillance cameras were doing so in compliance to “any British standard.” Today, Porter said, 85 percent are demonstrably “having regard” for the Home Office’s Surveillance Camera Code of Practice.

Porter said, though, that he was still hearing “too many stories of a default response to public space surveillance when it’s inappropriate,” however, and said it was his job “to drive out that approach.”

Despite a “commendable effort by different groups to self-regulate,” Porter said the national strategy has been drafted to coordinate efforts “right from the manufacturer, through to the installer and designer to the end-user. There’s a lack of coordination at the moment and it damages standards, confuses training, and the end product is you don’t get good quality surveillance that is there to protect the public and make them feel safe.”

The Register notes that in 2015, turnover for the video and CCTV surveillance sector topped £2.12 billion in the United Kingdom. According to the 2013 estimates – the most recent available  – there are potentially over six million CCTV cameras in the United Kingdom – not including body-cam footage, unmanned aerial vehicles, or the automatic number plate recognition system.

Porter says the number of cameras is probably much higher.

In his talk with the Register, Porter explained what “surveillance by consent” meant: “For me, it means that this public space surveillance — which doesn’t sit under a specific legislative framework — is trusted by the public to be there for its needs.” It means that the community knows that “surveillance is there to protect them, and not spy on them.”

Porter stressed that for the public to consent to surveillance, it needs to be satisfied that surveillance cameras are well-run and run for legitimate purposes.

He noted that financial difficulties have forced local authorities to change their “surveillance approach.” The SCC office has seen “local authorities cut their camera propositions by £250,000 in a year,” but use the code to ensure they are doing so properly. “Where there’s a problem is where the public is deceived that there is an adequate surveillance posture,” Porter added.

Such stories are “not uncommon” Porter told the Register, with councils switching off their CCTV cameras but not telling the community. “Councils maintain cameras that aren’t functioning and don’t tell the public, previously monitored cameras that are becoming unmonitored,” Porter added.

There is a “lack of awareness around the important of transparency, and a fear that anything to do with surveillance has be spoken about in hushed tones. My position is that anything regarding surveillance has to be shouted from the rooftops.”