Data-driven surveillance and the privacy-security balance: ‘Question Time’ insights from Tony Porter, Lord Paddick and more

The "Orwellian" deployment of video surveillance systems in Abu Dhabi was among the topics discussed by a panel including Surveillance Camera Commissioner Tony Porter and Lord Brian Paddick on Wednesday.

Taking place at the London School of Economics on Wednesday the 'Question Time' style debate also explored issues around body-worn video (BWV), ANPR and data aggregation. The stellar line-up was chaired by Professor William Webster of University of Stirling and completed by Brother Watch director Silkie Carlo, Simon Israel, senior home affairs correspondent for Channel 4 News, and Mike Barton, national police lead on CCTV. The event was organised by the Centre for Research into Information, surveillance and Privacy (CRISP).

Data aggregation

Lord Paddick, Lords Spokesperson for Home Affairs, was not entirely convinced about the deterrent value of surveillance cameras.

And the former Lib Dem mayoral candidate outlined the concerns he shared with the general public about the privacy implications not only of surveillance systems themselves, but of data aggregation across multiple systems that could lead to private individuals being personally identified.

Lord Paddick found it hard to conceive how individuals might give consent for reverse image searches

Sometimes this can be a good thing, he admitted, but it also has implications under human rights legislation. He seemed less concerned about police use of body-worn video (BWV), though he declined to discuss its use in the private security sector. He found troubling the use of reverse image searches - where a person could be identified and information about them easily found from CCTV images.

It's hard to conceive how individuals might give consent for such a search, he said. It raises some complex issues and would likely have many unintended consequences. Tony Porter, Surveillance Camera Commissioner since 2014, spoke about the need to raise standards across the surveillance ecosystem - including among users, buyers and manufacturers.

Part of his challenge, he said, was to identify poor practice and call it out, while encouraging adherence to standards, and providing up-to-date information and guidance. He has challenged police use of ANPR, which has prompted a Home Office review. "A key concern for me is whether the police understand the volume of misreads or missed reads on the database," he wrote in his latest annual report to parliament.

Porter has also told an ANPR conference that while 97% accuracy sounded impressive on the face of it, this still meant between 750,000 and 1.2 million misreads per day. "I am very bothered by this, very bothered indeed, because I know that errors on the hot list could negatively impact on the citizen," he told the conference. Barton, Chief Constable of Durham Constabulary as well as national police lead for CCTV, said that ANPR data should be held for as briefly as possible. Cost was a major consideration as well as privacy and accuracy.

Body-worn video

Tony Porter also wanted a proper debate on BWV.

He felt that understanding and regulation had not kept pace with technology, making informed consent challenging to obtain. As we continue to venture through this unknown territory, striking the right balance between privacy and security has never been more fraught or important.

Big Brother Watch's Silkie Carlo said that we cannot criticise other countries' attitudes to citizens' rights while we erode our own in plain sight

Silkie Carlo said that we cannot criticise other countries' attitudes to citizens' rights while we erode our own in plain sight. She said that widescale surveillance has a damaging effect on people and had no discernible benefit to crime prevention.

The aggregation of data from surveillance, facial recognition, ANPR and other sources created a biometric identity checkpoint with no mandate and no impact assessment, she continued. She felt this could alter the fabric of life in the UK - and not for the better. Simon Israel was also concerned about data aggregation without mandate or accountability.

In the course of reporting on the Undercover Policing Enquiry he'd realised how great the risk of abuse was. Mike Barton said he welcomed such probing questions of police practices as a necessary part of living in a healthy democracy. On BWV he offered a remarkable statistic: 100% of individuals who had so far been shown footage of their arrest had asked to apologise to the arresting officer.

(Although as far as I can tell it didn't stop them offending in the first place, nor is there evidence to suggest BWV does prevent crime or officer assault, but merely documents it.)

Dystopian

The spectre of a unified surveillance camera estate, potentially serving a unified national police force, was perhaps the evening's most alarming topic. The impetus for this question appeared to stem from the importance of protecting critical national infrastructure. Abu Dhabi was cited as a dystopian exemplar of what this means in practice and one the panel was united in thinking not worth emulating.

The emirate's Falcon Eye surveillance system monitors "every person from the moment they leave their doorstep to the moment they return to it," a source close to the project has told Middle East Eye. Mike Barton felt that police shouldn't have such overweening surveillance capabilities in a democracy that values civil liberties.

Tony Porter doubted that people would want to be filmed and tracked every waking moment of their day

Tony Porter doubted that people would want to be filmed and tracked every waking moment of their day. Describing it as 'nightmarish' and a threat to democracy Silkie Carlo feared that such widely deployed surveillance technology with few checks and balances could be proposed as a solution to falling police numbers.

GDPR

With the GDPR coming into force from 25 May data protection was inevitably a major talking point.

Already overstretched following deep budgetary cuts, police now faced the unwelcome prospect of complying with a deluge of subject access requests. The GDPR debate also touched on everything from police storage of images of people who had not been convicted of any offence to whether police access to private sector surveillance images might represent a backdoor breach of people's privacy. Concern about police conduct around CCTV appeared more pronounced in the audience than concern over how the private sector rolled out surveillance, even BWV.

On the use of BWV cameras in the NHS the whole panel agreed that standards needed to be high given the context: people being captured on camera when they're often at their most vulnerable. The NHS is not subject to the same regulation as other organisations yet it uses surveillance in more invasive ways. Overall, the debate confirmed my feeling that we're a long way from striking the right balance between privacy and security.

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