The regulation of surveillance cameras

David Buxton is recently appointed as the Head of Policy and Support for the Surveillance Camera Commissioner, having transferred from the Office of Surveillance Commissioners (OSC). He is a former Head of a Counter Terrorism Unit and leads on the regulation strand of the National Surveillance Camera Strategy. Read his “guest blog”


The terrorism related events which occurred within our communities in recent times serve to underline the importance of vigilance as being an essential ingredient of a modern safe society. Whether it be vigilance on the part of citizens going about their daily lives (be alert but not alarmed is an excellent mantra) or vigilance on the part of those who have a duty to help to keep people safe, there is no doubt that a heightened sense of awareness contributes towards our overall sense of safety and security.

For “vigilance”, read “surveillance”. In the context of overt public space surveillance camera systems, camera technology has a valuable role to play in helping to keep people safe. However, the public need to be confident that in pursuing that legitimate aim of keeping us safe, the preservation of our civil liberties, those fundamental rights and freedoms which we all enjoy, are not eroded, and that their preservation is uppermost in the minds of those operating surveillance camera systems. This public interest is central to the work of regulators.

The Surveillance Camera Commissioner is regularly on record as saying that in discharging his responsibilities when challenging surveillance camera practices, he is not anti surveillance, he is simply anti bad surveillancebad surveillance being that which is not conducive to the public interest.

Regulatory interest

The ability to integrate rapidly developing technologies within a surveillance camera system significantly increases its capabilities to intrude, and also brings challenges to statutory regulators as established regulatory space more and more tends to overlap. Take for example the use of facial recognition or biometric technology which is integrated within a public space, overt surveillance camera system: biometric considerations are the purview of the Biometrics Commissioner,  the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice (para 2.3) provides that increasingly intrusive technological capabilities of surveillance cameras must be regulated by that code, the use of an overt surveillance camera system for covert purposes engages the provisions of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and therefore the interests of the Office of Surveillance Commissioners (OSC), (who are in the process of amalgamating with Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office (IOCCO) and Intelligence Services Commissioner (ISC) in to a single body, as a result of the big data surveillance challenges facing public bodies and intelligence agencies), and of course a cross cutting theme of those regulatory interests is that of data/information management, the statutory responsibilities arising from the Data Protection Act and the much anticipated General Data Protection Responsibilities (GDPR) which are the regulatory purview of the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Within this regulatory framework the potential exists for regulatory overlap, confusion, duplication of effort and the over-bureaucratising of surveillance camera operators if not carefully managed.

The Surveillance Camera Code of Practice provides a “whole system” approach to providing guidance within the principles contained within its contents. The Code (para. 5.2) is also clear that the Surveillance Camera Commissioner must work closely with other regulators in discharging his responsibilities.

Better coordination

The “Regulation” strand of the National Surveillance Camera Strategy seeks to develop and establish greater synergies between regulators and those with audit and oversight responsibilities in connection with surveillance camera systems. A recent Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, and Tony Porter, Surveillance Camera Commissioner, being one outcome of this work, another example being the active support provided to the development of the Regulation theme of the National Surveillance Camera Strategy by the Office of Surveillance Commissioners.

Further work is planned to establish a baseline understanding of levels of compliance on the part of “relevant authorities” in England and Wales with regard their statutory responsibility to have regard to the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice and to use the information to inform the development of relations with other regulatory bodies.

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