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Britons’ privacy at ‘real risk’ from weakly-regulated street cams – watchdog

Published time: April 20, 2014 15:14
Edited time: June 27, 2014 08:20
Reuters / David Moir

Reuters / David Moir

Britain’s ‘surveillance society’ increasingly functions in ways the public is unaware of. An abundance of CCTV – and roadside – cameras misleads the public as to the true nature and scope of government snooping, the surveillance watchdog says.

The overall rise in surveillance culture over the past decades has not only led to public ignorance over how road cameras (dash-cams) scan millions of journeys and registration details daily, but also to a rise in private CCTV habits that has Britons snooping on each other and feeling the pressure of constantly being watched by their neighbors.

This was revealed in an interview to The Independent by Tony Porter, the Government’s Surveillance Commissioner. He argues that better and clearer guidelines are required to regulate the government’s bulk data gathering on innocent citizens. Among other things, it should be regularly updated and removed in a timely manner.

But another crucial point Porter feels the public is missing has to do with public fears of clandestine government operations and hacking overshadowing the surveillance being carried out right under everyone’s noses.

“There is a very real risk that if systems aren’t adhered to, innocent members of the public could be put at risk of having their privacy impacted upon… There are other concerns that have been expressed … the large data-grab of information and the period of retention of that information,” Porter said. Among other things, the information – even on innocent people – is stored by the cams’ network for a period of two years.

Now, a series of probes into ANPR (automatic number plate recognition) has thrust the police into the spotlight, following the system’s failures, which put into question the justifications for the dash-cams’ use. The system is at the center of the country’s growing concern with government surveillance in general.

In Porter’s eyes information gathering by some 50,000 government-controlled cams (and there are literally around 18 million journeys caught daily) solidifies ANPR’s reputation as that of the “biggest surveillance networks that most people have never heard of,” according to campaigners.

Reuters / Luke MacGregor


The police, in their defense, say that grabbing registration plates and details of speeders and criminals has led to tens of thousands of arrests. But there are notable failures of the system, which put into question if it often does more harm than good.

Several cases stand out. In one, a woman was killed by a known sex offender who had shown up eight times on the cam, yet nothing was done to prevent the killing. In another, a speeding police car hit a 16-year-old girl, killing her instantly, all because it was chasing a speeder. It later turned out that the information was out of date, but ANPR had failed to update the statistics on the driver.

“If we are going to bring proper accountability to CCTV and ANPR, the Commissioner needs proper powers to enforce the law. Without them his words, however sensible, will continue to fall on deaf ears,” Emma Carr the deputy director of Big Brother Watch believes. She is highlighting how Porter only has legal authority over cameras installed in public places, but cannot make the government comply with any regulations he sets forth.

But what has been developing side-by-side with the government’s indiscriminate data-gathering for the past three decades is also Britons’ own habit of snooping on each other – and that is regulated even more poorly, Porter explains.

People have fallen in love with buying little private CCTV cams that they obsessively use on their surroundings. With a range of around 20 meters, neighbors have been trying to catch each other performing dastardly acts, and later enjoying exposing each other as they settled differences.

But the laws that may apply to government-controlled cameras, weak as they are, do not apply to private, affordable CCTV cams, allowing people to use them as they please and for whatever purpose, it turns out.