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The UK’s Surveillance Camera Code of Conduct Doesn’t Go Far Enough.

Updated on June 7, 2017

UK Releases Surveillance Camera Code of Conduct

When the UK government released the surveillance camera code of conduct it was intended to be a balm to the threat that digital surveillance offers to civil liberties. Yet the code of conduct does almost nothing to protect citizens from the excesses of government, or even private businesses in using digital surveillance to record information about us. Although this article deals specifically with cameras the principles can be extended to include all aspects of digital surveillance. Given Theresa Mays recent (June 2017) public comments about giving security services greater freedom in accessing surveillance data from the internet the issue seems more pertinent than ever.

The United Kingdom Home Office released the code due to concerns over abuses and misuse of surveillance technology by local authorities and other public bodies.

It is easy to see why the public are increasingly concerned about misuses of surveillance powers, with confirmation that the United States have been using a surveillance data mining program called PRISM since 2007 to intercept and store communications within the US and even from international sources. Britain’s GCHQ was also implicated in the information that was leaked to the media by Edward Snowden with William Hague being forced to defend the use of surveillance and insist that British agents have always operated wholly within the law.

The United States and the United Kingdom are further united in their assertion that all the information they have gathered has been as the result of lawful interception.

The US Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, also went on the defensive saying of Snowden’s disclosure "The unauthorized disclosure of information about this important and entirely legal program is reprehensible and risks important protections for the security of Americans." Clapper also said that the US did not “wittingly” collect and store information about American citizens, but he later retracted that statement. A clear indication that existing powers are already being abused.

Edward Snowden

Code of Conduct

The code states that surveillance can only be used when in is in “pursuit of a legitimate aim”. This may well sound reassuring, but it is not specifying who decides what is a legitimate aim, or giving any specific boundaries as to what is seen as a legitimate aim. It may well be that your local authority wants to know how often your partner sleeps at you property and can therefore film the entrances to your property day and night to get this information- with anything else caught in the recording considered little more that justifiable collateral damage.

The code does go on to say that clear rules must be established, with a contact point for complaints and as much transparency as possible- but it doesn’t give any guidance as to what these should be. It leaves it entirely at the discretion of the public body using the surveillance equipment to define the boundaries, the contact points and regulate who can access the information.

The full twelve point code reads:

The use of a surveillance camera system must:

  1. always be for a specified purpose which is in pursuit of a legitimate aim and necessary to meet an identified pressing need.
  2. take into account its effect on individuals and their privacy.
  3. have as much transparency as possible, including a published contact point for access to information and complaints.
  4. have clear responsibility and accountability for all surveillance activities including images and information collected, held and used.
  5. have clear rules, policies and procedures in place and these must be communicated to all who need to comply with them.
  6. have no more images and information stored than that which is strictly required.
  7. restrict access to retained images and information with clear rules on who can gain access.
  8. consider any approved operational, technical and competency standards relevant to a system and its purpose and work to meet and maintain those standards.
  9. be subject to appropriate security measures to safeguard against unauthorised access and use.

10. have effective review and audit mechanisms to ensure legal requirements, policies and standards are complied with.

11. be used in the most effective way to support public safety and law enforcement with the aim of processing images and information of evidential value, when used in pursuit of a legitimate aim.

12. be accurate and kept up to date when any information is used to support a surveillance camera system which compares against a reference database for matching purposes.

In effect the code is little more than a tool to reassure the public because it will do very little to regulate the public bodies which use surveillance cameras. The code itself will only be used for CCTV and number plate recognition camera’s, the code will not be used for other surveillance techniques and it is clear that more must be done to reduce the impact of state sponsored surveillance on our civil liberties and civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch have been quick to condemn the code as not going far enough in attempting to curb abuses of state surveillance.


Big Brother Watch

The main defence of the use of increased surveillance is to counter the threat of terrorism, yet there is little evidence that the scope of surveillance is justified in terms of offering results. The PRISM system in the US has been credited by the authorities with preventing dozens of attacks yet they have been unable to present any evidence of this, and it is a similar situation in the UK. Indeed, the murder of soldier Lee Rigby shows how ineffective the surveillance is, as one of the suspects had been on a terror list for several years yet they were unable to prevent him orchestrating the horrific attack. This has been reinforced by the horrendous attacks in the UK in May and June of 2017, where at least three of the five perpetrators were on terrorist watch lists.

In terms of CCTV, West Midlands police were forced to apologise in 2010 after installing over two hundred camera’s, many of them hidden, into areas of Birmingham with high Muslim populations. They were funded by a £3 million fund set up to combat terrorism. Yet according to the police none of the cameras were ever switched on, and certainly they never discovered anything that would assist in countering a terrorist threat.

Indeed, it was the incident in Birmingham with WMP that made the government run a consultation on the need for a code of conduct for surveillance cameras. The code itself is almost totally ineffectual in the narrow scope of surveillance which it covers and it is clear that it will do little to protect the civil liberties of members of the public.

The director of Big Brother Watch, Nick Pickles, says more is needed: With only a small fraction of cameras covered and without any penalties for breaking the code there is much more that could be done to protect people's privacy from unjustified or excessive surveillance.

"Ultimately the regulator needs real powers to enforce the rules and the code should apply to every CCTV camera, irrespective of who is operating it.

Mr Pickles added: "We have already seen cases of cameras in school toilets, neighbours involving the police because of cameras on private property and concerns about new marketing technology tracking number plates, yet the code would not apply in any of these situations.

"As CCTV technology improves and issues like facial recognition analysis come to the fore it is essential that people are able to access meaningful redress where their privacy is infringed.

"The surveillance camera commissioner must be given the powers and the resources to take action, otherwise the public will rightly ask if the surveillance state continues to escape accountability."

The points that Eric Pickles makes are all very valid concerns, indeed the fact that it doesn’t cover every CCTV and the lack of powers for the regulators mean the system is almost pointless- at best it is raising the profile of the genuine concerns and at worst it is just a government smokescreen to cover the fact that almost totally unregulated surveillance goes on every day.

Stop Mass Surveillance

Below is an abridged version of a paper I presented in 2010 on the effects on Liberty using digital media surveillance. In the paper I was careful to explore both sides of the argument but I feel it becomes clear that state surveillance is a two edged sword. I believe the paper helps demonstrate the role the state should have and thereby the guidelines that should be adhered to when dealing with surveillance issues.

The effects on Liberty of using digital media surveillance?

Digital media is seen by some as being a gift of freedom, liberating us and giving us access to almost limitless opportunities with only a limited financial cost to ourselves. The British government have issued a number of very positive statements regarding digital media. The official UK digital television website says “Digital television brings new opportunities through the possibility of access to improved and new services” and Gordon Brown goes further talking about Britain after the digital revolution:

“Only a Digital Britain can unlock the imagination and creativity that will secure for us and our children the highly skilled jobs of the future. Only a Digital Britain will secure the wonders of an information revolution that could transform every part of our lives.”

It is clear that the British government are selling the media on the huge improvements that they will bring to us as individuals and a society, but the technolies have also given governments and private industries new technologies capable of keeping a track on us. Here we will be attempting to see if these new technologies of surveillance have had an effect on our liberty from the perspective of the state, private industry and the balance of our private and public lives.

Before we look into digital media and the effects of surveillance on our liberties it is important that we first define what we mean by liberty and the states role in it. The Collins Cobuild dictionary defines liberty as “the freedom to live your life in the way you want...” The key word is freedom. When we talk of our liberties we are referring to the right to do what we want and think what we want without external controls, and these external influences can be the state, other individuals or private organisations. These are not new ideas and they came to the fore in western thinking during the period known as the enlightenment perhaps most notably by John Stuart Mills who said “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign” The focus is on the freedom of the individual.

Unless you are an anarchist (and this is not the place to argue for or against that particular philosophy, or the issues with liberal values and social responsibility) the state has a key role to play in our liberties. Since the time of Socrates the belief has existed that society needs some regulation to function. Yet there is also an awareness that, in the words of Todorov, we need to be careful of “the encroachment of collective authority on the sphere of individual freedom”. So the state needs to make regulations to ensure the proper functioning of society while at the same time being careful not to encroach too far into our liberty.

So how does digital media come into this? The digital revolution has led to unprecedented opportunities for the state. According to Lyons it allows the state to increase the “role of technologies in promoting an informed electorate, and thus enhanced democratic participation”. By using the internet, interactive television and mobile technologies they can raise awareness of issues and therefore increase democratic participation. Evidence of this can be seen in the recent UK general election, where voting number were the highest for a number of years especially amongst the disenchanted younger voters. Part of this can, perhaps, be credited to social networking sites such as Facebook who ran the DemocracyUK campaign to increase participation in the election.

It also gives the state new technologies such as CCTV and the internet to monitor us, ostensibly for our own protection. Add to that the increase in the perceived threat since the destruction of the twin towers in the 9/11 terror attacks and the government have both the technologies and some justification to increase state surveillance and keep more complete records of us that are capable of communicating with each other and spreading the information.

The British government justify the increased use of CCTV cameras by arguing that they lead to the public feeling safer and reduce crime. The number of cameras in the UK comparable to other countries is astounding. Wandsworth, just one borough of London, had one thousand one hundred and thirteen CCTV cameras, a total that was more than that of Boston (USA), Johannesburg and Dublin combined (BBC, 2009.) During the year 2008/2009 Wandsworth had over twenty-five thousand reportable crimes (Metropolitan Police, 2010) which was led to a crime rate of eighty seven crimes per one thousand people. Compare that to Dublin which had forty eight crimes reported per one thousand people (OSAC, 2009.) So it seems that CCTV is not the most effective deterrent available. In its defence Wandsworth had seen significant drops in reported crime in both years prior to 2009, but it is not clear whether the reduction was the result of surveillance or due to other social programmes aimed at reducing crime the British government had pursued. What is clear from separate research commissioned by the Home Office in the UK is that the limited advantages of CCTV were well known. The report shows that violent crime was not influenced at all by CCTV being in an area, with only property crime and in particular car crime in small contained areas such car parks or closed residential estates being significantly reduced. Crime in city centres and busy areas had no significant change after CCTV cameras were introduced to an area (Home Office, 2005.)

It seems clear that CCTV is not particularly effective at protecting us from crime, but it also isn’t immediately evident how it impinges on our liberties or whether CCTV use has other potential uses that justify any infringements. Research by Seerad in 2010 has shown that a person not guilty, or even suspected, of any crime can be recorded over three hundred times a day and some of the cameras such as traffic cameras on busy motorway bridges can be streamed live through the internet by anybody with internet access. Some of these cameras also have number plate recognition technology so you can be tracked at each step of the journey and with the ease now of storing data electronically there is no difficulty for the state to store the information and then use digital communication technology to compare it against other data bases around the country or even internationally. The fact that our movements can be monitored ultimately mean others can seek to influence our movements and reduce our freedom of movement, which is a fundamental freedom inherent to our civil liberties.

Yet the state can go much further than this. In the US from the 1940’s through to the 1970’s the government routinely tracked and monitored individuals, even tapping into and recording their communications. The only offence they had committed was being affiliated with political views or trade unions that the government did not favour. We can all see that routinely monitoring individuals is clearly an infringement on that individuals freedoms. Similarly with CCTV if they wanted to put a camera in our homes, or add sound recording technology, most of us would see this as a breach of our liberties. We have grown used to being observed in public but we still hold the private parts of our lives, and our speech to be fundamental freedoms.

How CCTV can breach Privacy

More Relevant Today

The above paper was written in 2010 and it discusses historic examples of the US government routinely monitoring people with little or no justification. The use of PRISM and other systems is just an extension of this, but with the rapid growth in digital technologies it is now possible for governments to record and monitor much more than ever before. It seems clear that governments should us these powers responsibly and with transparency so that citizens can be confident that the powers are not being abused as recent disclosures and allegations suggest they are. The role terrorist threat is used to explain why they need to monitor us, but this is little more than an excuse. The threat in the United Kingdom from terrorist was much higher during the 1970’s, 80’s and early 90’s due to the activities of the IRA, but the governments of that time did not feel the need to change laws to give them more powers to monitor us.

The threat of religious fundamentalists is one we should take seriously, but it is essential that we don’t let the fear of these threats, which has been greatly inflated for political ends, to allow our governments to erode the liberties and freedoms which have been hard won through centuries of struggle.

Some Recommended Further Reading

British Broadcasting Corporation (2009) The Statistics of CCTV [online] 20th July 2009. London:BBC [accessed 8th May 2010] available at:
Castells, M. (1997) The Power of Identity. Oxford: Blackwell
Chomsky, N. (2002) Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda (2nd ed) New York: Seven Stories Press
Chomsky, N. (2004) Hegemony or Survival. London: Penguin Books
Davies, N. (2009) Flat Earth News. London: Vintage
Evangelista, M. (2008) Law, Ethics and the War on Terror. Cambridge: Polity Press
Gill, M and Sprigg, A. Home Office Research, (2005) Assessing the Impact of CCTV. London: Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate
Grayling, A.C. (2009) Liberty in the Age of Terror: A defence of Civil Liberties and Enlightenment Values. London: Bloomsbury
Lyon, D. (2001) Surveillance Society: Monitoring everyday life. Buckingham: Open University Press
Martin, J. (1978) The Wired Society. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall


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