UK Government plans to safeguard the public when it comes to surveillance technologies will do the opposite, a new report warns.
The independent study claims that if a new Data Protection and Digital Information Bill becomes law, it will create significant gaps in how surveillance and biometrics are overseen.
The Bill would impact the rights of individuals when it comes to surveillance and complicate the work of the policing and local authority bodies who are trying to protect communities, says the report by The Centre for Research into Information, Surveillance and Privacy (CRISP).
CRISP is a collaborative initiative between the University of Stirling’s Management School, the University of St Andrews School of Management, the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Sciences and School of Law and others. The report was commissioned by the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner after discussions with the Home Office.
As it stands, the Bill proposes to abolish the roles of the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner and the requirement for a Surveillance Camera Code of Practice. And while current oversight of surveillance and biometrics is widely considered as “patchy” and requiring simplification, simplification should not come at the expense of meaningful oversight, says the study.
Its authors, from the University of Stirling and the University of Essex, warn that if the Bill were to be enacted, it would “create significant gaps” in regulation in England and Wales (Scotland has an independent Scottish Biometrics Commissioner.) It would mean the loss of standards and guidance for surveillance practitioners and manufacturers, as well as police handling of DNA samples, DNA profiles and fingerprints.
The 67-page study is based upon interviews with the UK’s top experts and practitioners in surveillance and security, including consultants, policy advisers and senior police officers. It quotes a former Surveillance Camera Commissioner saying: “Why is it all of a sudden, that simplification is more important than raising standards?”
One senior police officer interviewed for the study voiced concerns over civil liberties, saying: “Regardless of the fact that we’re producing video footage of people walking down the street, it’s actually the whole process of being able to create that information in the first place. It’s the issue that we’ve actually got people sat there physically watching these other people walking around going about their business. And that’s what we really have to control very securely.”
The arguments used to justify the changes are “wanting”, says the report, and fail to recognise the protections offered by the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner at a time when technologically mediated surveillance is becoming increasingly advanced and intrusive.
Professor William Webster of the University of Stirling Management School, Director of CRISP and co-author of the report, said: “We are at a time when surveillance technologies are rapidly progressing and improving, especially when it comes to biometrics and facial recognition. With that comes concerns, particularly about the role artificial intelligence plays in surveillance and biometrics. These are issues that are not going to go away.
“The police and other public bodies already face a battle to regain public trust and confidence over the use of surveillance. So, to curtail any oversight at this time will only set them back more, and could lead to lack of support in the very communities these technologies are there to serve.”
It is essential that the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice, or a variant thereof, is retained, along with a designated vehicle to ensure compliance, say the authors. Currently the Code is heavily embedded into the work of the police, local authorities and other public bodies. As such, it is seen as instrumental in raising standards, says the report.
While the study agrees that changes are needed to current arrangements in order to address the challenges ahead in this field, it says it is “unrealistic” to think that the Bill's proposals would allow for existing standards and safeguards to be maintained. Instead, it is more likely that surveillance practices and technologies would become relatively unregulated and disparate.
The report calls for oversight policies to be strengthened and for a Code of Practice to be retained, and to be adaptable to accommodate emerging technologies. It also suggests exploring how the functions associated with the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner role should be retained even if the office is abolished.
The full report can be found here: Changes to the functions of the BSCC arising from the DPDI bill (publishing.service.gov.uk)
Find more information about CRISP at www.crisp-surveillance.com.