In the world of overt surveillance cameras automatic facial recognition has recently been under the spotlight. Only in the last few weeks we have seen the publication of a high profile and independent report highlighting concerns about the use of live time facial recognition by the Metropolitan Police. Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary Fire and Rescue Services HMICFRS released its annual report ‘A State of Policing’ suggesting that the police should invest more in technologies such as facial recognition. We’ve seen the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology report criticise the government’s approach to regulating the police use of AFR in their latest report. The Information Commissioner has also added her voice to the AFR debate in a recent blog.
Whereas AFR continues to command headline attention, to exclusively look towards AFR and indeed ‘Biometrics’ with regard to surveillance cameras is to risk missing a wider point of concern. The capability of overt state surveillance in public places is growing. There are now more drones carrying cameras in our skies, more body worn cameras walking our streets, a more modern ANPR infrastructure watching our cars, more CCTV cameras on police dashboards - far more cameras probably exist now than when my role was created in 2012.
What next? Algorithms that can identify someone by how they walk (gait analysis), lip reading technology, artificial intelligence technology that can predict fights and sensors that can detect explosives and radiation. These are all technology that’s in development and what they all have in common is that they’re linked to surveillance cameras.
I’ve always supported the notion that we should harness technology and the police should be allowed to exploit the potential which exists within technology to make us safe. Some of these technologies do make people feel safe and I recognise that.
The key point however is that the use of technology enhanced surveillance has to be conducted and held to account within a clear and unambiguous framework of legitimacy and transparency. This will ensure that in pursuit of delivering a safe society, such use does not go beyond that which is necessary and proportionate in a free society.
As the leading regulatory voice on the use of overt surveillance cameras by the police I am heartened that the courts are giving due consideration to the issue of police use of AFR, something which I have been highlighting for debate for some considerable time. I very much look forward, together with others, to the outcome of those particular proceedings to help take us all forwards.
So, what is the state of surveillance?
On the National Surveillance Camera Day I launched a compliance assessment (survey) of the overt surveillance camera capabilities of all police forces in England and Wales. This was to get a deeper understanding of the current and aspirational police surveillance camera capabilities and of the issues which their use gives rise to (and a repeat of the survey I carried out in 2017). As the final returns continue to come in to my office, I commend all those Chief Officer’s and Police and Crime Commissioners for their support to this work. They too seek better guidance.
In my view ‘surveillance’ is an ‘investigatory power’ when exercised by the state whether such conduct be overt or covert in nature. As such it should be considered, appropriately legislated for and regulated as being such.
Voices from within Government and as well as those outside have been calling for a public debate on the use of AFR. In support of those voices I would go a step further and say that we need an independent review commissioned and conducted of the statutory and regulatory framework which governs the investigatory power of overt surveillance camera use by the state.
The growing capabilities of overt surveillance technologies, the proliferation of cameras in society, the increasingly crowded regulatory space and the voices of concern are such that these matters are increasingly ‘a question of trust’ for society.
As a deliberate segue, when I consider the excellent report delivered by Lord David Anderson QC in 2015 (a Question of Trust) reviewing the law and regulation of surveillance, I find so many potential answers to the dilemmas which government officials are facing. This report placed the regulation of all investigatory powers under a single regulatory body (the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office) which has within its structures, independent judicial figures, legal advisors and an inspection regime, all of whom are skilled and experienced in the subject of, you guessed it, surveillance.
I am particularly drawn to Lord Anderson’s 5th principle in that report calling for “a single body of law, and a single system of oversight, for equivalent investigatory activities conducted by different public authorities”.
If I have learned one thing from my experience within the National Surveillance Camera Strategy it is that the framework which delivered my role and the rules by which overt state surveillance is conducted has to evolve and be future proofed by being principle based. The days of fragmenting the regulation of state surveillance on the basis of whether a camera is being used ‘covertly’ or ‘overtly’ are gone in my view.
I simply posit the view that some overt surveillance camera applications whether in themselves or combined with other technologies are so progressively intrusive in their capabilities that they can be the equal of some covert surveillance activities in terms of the intrusion caused.
I really do believe that it is time government recognised overt state surveillance as being an investigatory power rather than simply a data protection issue. An informed and esteemed independent reviewer would I am sure provide such clarity as to the way forwards.
Implicitly my role is to raise the standards of public surveillance operation, to ensure that the public are better informed, more confident and safer, to ensure that the state is clear and accountable for acting within legal and ethical boundaries. That stakeholders and industry have clarity in leadership and standards, and to help inform the evolution of laws and regulation that contribute to keeping us both safe and free. After all, these are questions of trust too.