Watching the Watchers: Surveillance Cameras, “Invisibility Cloaks” and You

20th April 2020 Media Law

Surveillance via mobile apps and location data is currently a hot topic. I recently blogged about the proposed use of data to track and combat the coronavirus.

Other developments in the world of surveillance have received considerably less attention. For instance, take the recent announcement of an updated version of something called the surveillance camera-specific Data Protection Impact Assessment or “DPIA”, for short.

On the face of it, the DPIA might sound extremely dull, but it has consequences for all of us.

It's the result of work by both the Surveillance Camera Commissioner (SCC) and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and is, in a sense, an “early warning” risk assessment for those organisations which operate surveillance cameras.

The DPIA is important in ensuring that cameras are used for a good, clear reason and not simply there to ‘snoop’ on the general public. It requires operators to consider where cameras are located and what they're being used for as well as who is being recorded and how those images or data are going to be handled from the point of capture to their deletion.

Camera operators also need to consider the degree of impact on individuals. If their use is considered 'high risk', they will need to consult the ICO prior to turning cameras on.

This updated version of the DPIA comes at a time of escalating concerns about the use of surveillance technology.

Last summer, one privacy lobby group warned that the explosion in use of facial recognition cameras was "deeply disturbing".

A subsequent legal challenge to how the cameras were deployed during a pilot project run by South Wales Police was dismissed by the High Court, only for the civil liberties campaigner who brought the claim to be given permission to take his complaint to the Court of Appeal.

Despite the continuing controversy, the Metropolitan Police decided to press ahead with the operational use of 'live' facial recognition cameras for the first time and other forces are doing likewise.

Among the very important considerations in the whole debate is the fact that people whose images are recorded by CCTV may, of course, want to see those recordings because they are their personal data.

What does that mean exactly? Well, according to article 4(1) of the General Data Protection Regulation (“GDPR”), personal data can relate to any one of a wide range of different "identifiers", including name, identification number "or one or more factors specific to the physical, physiological, genetic, mental, economic, cultural or social identity of that natural person.“

The GDPR entitles people to obtain copies of their personal data and to know how that data is being used via something known as a “Subject Access Request” (SAR), something which has become a very frequent part of JMW’s work. In fact, we are asked to handle so many of these requests that we've even compiled a guide to what the process entails.

That there is an inadequate framework controlling how the entire CCTV infrastructure functions is something which clearly vexes the now ex-Surveillance Camera Commissioner, Tony Porter. Mr Porter stood down at the start of this month after six years in post. Before he departed, though, he discussed his frustration that a call for a single body to regulate surveillance appears to have fallen on deaf ears.

Such oversight would be potentially helpful in drawing together what, at the moment, amounts to a patchwork of laws and guidance.

Some people have come up with interesting ideas to counteract the emerging technology. One news report, for instance, detailed how computer scientists and mathematicians in the US have come up with clothing - dubbed "an invisibility cloak" - capable of allowing wearers to go unnoticed by the kind of surveillance equipment now being rolled out by the authorities.

Do we have the equivalent of a surveillance arms race on our hands? Perhaps not quite yet.

However, Mr Porter’s call for a more joined up approach to monitoring the use of surveillance camera usage is worthy of detailed consideration.

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Nick McAleenan is a Partner located in Manchester in our Media & Reputation Management; Data Protection & Privacy department

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