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Academic turns up volume on CCTV Bill proposal

The Register | February 2, 2007
Mark Ballard

Analysis While British bobbies and Blakeys have installed more CCTV cameras than any other country in the world, the people have been "sorely lacking" regulation that watches the watchers, according to an academic paper that proposes the outline of a CCTV bill.

Existing laws give only limited protection to people caught on CCTV camera, according to Regulating CCTV, a paper which will be presented at the EthiComp conference in Tokyo this spring.

The author, Dr Andrew Adams of the University of Reading, has described how rapidly evolving surveillance technology could be easily abused by law enforcers, "crackers, stalkers and general busybodies" unless it was civilised by new laws.

The British authorities have also called (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/11/22/cctv_powers/) for CCTV regulation, but for different reasons. A consultation paper due for publication jointly by the Home Office and Association of Chief Police Officers is expected to ask that CCTV operators be forced to upgrade their systems so CCTV footage could be used in a court of law.

But Adams warns in his paper that the police should not be allowed to commandeer the CCTV network and that its growth should be checked.

Law enforcers, border police, and local authorities are working toward a nationwide network of high definition CCTV cameras that can track and identify individual people, automatically detect and even predict their behaviour. This scenario was until only recently a staple of dystopian fiction. Adams' concerns appeared to reflect those of post-war science fiction writers like Philip K Dick.

"The creation of a massive accessible network of high quality CCTV cameras in the UK would present one of the biggest threats to individual privacy possible, when combined with the development of automated tracking, analysis, and identification systems," said Adams.

The intelligence generated by such a network, when combined with data drawn from disparate other civil and private databases, would be used to create what people in the emerging field of surveillance studies call a "data double2.

The double, or "data shadow", is a "significant threat to individual privacy", said Adams, because it was an inherently inadequate estimation of a person's true identity that could nevertheless be used by its owners - the state authorities - to devastating effect.

"The identity of the data shadow, whether or not it is a reasonably close approximation of the identity of the person, has a significant impact on the life, and sometimes even death, of the surveilled," Adams told The Register in an email.

"The extreme example of this is Jean Charles de Menezes, who was shot dead following surveillance mistakenly informing armed officers that he was a terrorist," he said.


Part of the problem with data shadows is the feeling of Kafkaesque powerlessness they can cast over their subjects. This happens because of the one-sided power relationship between system and subject, as well as its inflexibility. The problem described by Adams was one in which the identity of the data shadow is divorced from the one a person holds dear, yet still has an intimate effect on the subject.

Referring to the work of Joshua Meyrowitz of the University of New Hampshire, Adams noted that a person's identity is usually a "collusion between the intent of the person holding the identity and the perception of those interacting with them" - a compromise, in other words between a person's self view and the view others have of them.

This should be the starting point for the regulation of all surveillance operations, said Adams. People are used to being able to negotiate their identities with the malleable world around them.

"The debate about data protection, focusing on the privacy aspect as it often does, ignores the potential impact on the psyche of the observed and on the attitudes of those around them to both correct and incorrect information," he said.

Until now, even the simple idea of CCTV has escaped the clutches of recent bills that might have had it tethered - the Data Protection Act 1998, Freedom of Information Act 2000, and Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 - noted Adams.

Furthermore, the Court of Appeal's Durant vs FSA ruling in 2003, annulled the strict interpretation of the DPA by which the Information Commissioner tried to stake its authority over CCTV operators. So now it's possible to get caught in the periphery of a CCTV camera and yet have no rights to privacy, he said.

So Adams proposed some measures that might be included in a CCTV Bill. It should make it an offence to take covert recordings on private premises, so people would be prevented, say, from videoing their dinner guests; likewise, covert cameras shouldn't be permitted in semi-private places like offices; while cameras should only be used in public places when absolutely necessary and their deployment was "proportional" - i.e. not excessive.

As for public places, where they are equally "ephemeral and immediate" as one another, people have traditionally enjoyed the "anonymity of the crowd". Adams said surveillance ought to be balanced by the same reciprocal social control - by giving the public square the means to watch the watchers.

 

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