The Data Brief

A monthly data protection bulletin from the barristers at 5 Essex Chambers

Watch This Space: Ethical and Security Issues concerning Surveillance Camera Technology

26 July 2023

On 10 July 2023, the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner (“BSCC”), Professor Fraser Sampson, wrote to the Minister for the Cabinet Office, the Minister for Crime and Policing and the Minister for Security, expressing concern about the security and ethical implications of the use of surveillance camera technology and Artificial Intelligence in the same sphere. Put shortly, existing concerns about the law failing to keep apace with facial recognition and other biometric technologies, are now amplified by the speed at which readily available AI systems can search and produce data.

The letter was prompted by increasing calls for a review of public space surveillance in the context of the 26 June 2023 Panorama programme, ‘Is China watching you?’ which investigated China’s global surveillance operation, including its fleet of spy balloons and Chinese manufactured security cameras. The programme claimed that cameras produced by two Chinese video surveillance companies (Hikvision and Dahua) which have been accused of using cameras to spy – including identifying specific ethnic groups – are used by police forces, local authorities and central government departments in the UK. Panorama endeavoured to show how the cameras could be hacked to obtain visual and sound data, and to disrupt computer systems, potentially threatening critical national infrastructure.

Concerns arising from the programme were, by Professor Sampson’s letter, set alongside the BSCC’s recent police and local authority surveys into the use of overt surveillance cameras and their compliance with the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 and the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice.

The surveys requested details of the use and governance of all overt surveillance camera systems deployed in public places, which is a growing list, including CCTV, ANPR, body warn video, drones, helicopter borne cameras and facial recognition technology. Whilst police made use of all of the above, CCTV, BWV and drones were most widely used by local authorities with no reports of facial recognition technology currently being used by the latter sector.

The principal findings were that:

  • For almost all the technologies, at least some equipment used by policing was manufactured or supplied by a surveillance company outside the UK about which there have been security or ethical concerns;
  • There are concerns about procurement processes, including an emphasis on value for money over security and ethical considerations, and several local authority respondents did not know who manufactured their cameras or whether they were associated with security or ethical concerns;
  • Police forces consider there is a need for guidance around the use of existing technology where there are source security/ethical concerns;
  • The full capabilities of some of the technologies are not fully understood;
  • There is little evidence regarding ethical penetration testing during cyber security reviews;
  • Not all police forces had completed data protection impact assessments for all the technology discussed in the survey;
  • Only 40% of local authority respondents reported working in collaboration with the police, a significant reduction from previous surveys, and there was also a reduction in local authorities working collaboratively with each other;
  • If/when the Office of BSCC closes with the passing of the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill (“DPDI”), the future of oversight and regulation of public space surveillance is in doubt.

The results of the surveys provide further evidence to support issues discussed in the Surveillance Camera Commissioner’s annual report which was laid in Parliament on 9 February 2023. In that report, Professor Sampson advocated for a comprehensive, coherent and consistent scheme of regulation to exploit the opportunities and address the threats posed by the explosion of capability in AI-driven biometric surveillance:

As our capability to collect and compare more biometric information from more sources with greater speed and at scale increases, the greater becomes the need for democratically accountable governance of the deployment of those capabilities, and standardised and accredited training to help instil public confidence in these capabilities’ (paragraph 90).

As the DPDI passes through Parliament, many pressing questions about the use of surveillance and the processing of biometric data in light of the gallop of AI and other technological advances, will need to be considered and so it is very much a case of Watch This Space…

The Data Brief

A monthly data protection bulletin from the barristers at 5 Essex Chambers

The Data Brief is edited by Francesca Whitelaw KC, Aaron Moss and John Goss, barristers at 5 Essex Chambers, with contributions from the whole information law, data protection and AI Team.

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