CCTV and ANPR

Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) is a form of video surveillance. It is estimated that Britain is monitored by as many as 5.9 million CCTV cameras, which makes us one of the most watched nations in the world.

CCTV is no longer restricted to private property, shops and city centres. It has been rolled out in school classrooms, hospitals and even swimming pool changing rooms.

Does it work?

CCTV images can be a valuable tool in crime detection – but it is not a silver bullet.

Images are often not of sufficiently good quality to be used in criminal courts – and it is relatively easy for someone to evade CCTV. Some police forces admit that they will not use CCTV footage because of the time and costs involved and, in recent years, a number of councils have reportedly started switching off a large number of cameras.

Similarly, its effectiveness as a crime deterrent is far from proven. Our crime rates are comparable with countries with very few cameras and Home Office funded research concluded that the impact of CCTV on crime prevention is not significant.

"Innovation"

CCTV technology is becoming more sophisticated – but regulation and safeguards have not kept up.

Increasingly, CCTV is linked to “smart” online systems which assist with analysing footage – including tools such as face detection and attribute searches.

One of Liberty’s key concerns is that CCTV cameras may soon be combined with facial recognition technology – allowing the public to be tracked and monitored in real time as they go about their daily lives. 

Read more about facial recognition.

ANPR

Another innovation that uses CCTV cameras is Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR). This usually consists of a camera linked to a device that can read car number plates. A photograph is taken of a motor vehicle, the photo is passed to the reading device and the number-plate is then instantly compared against database records.

Tens of millions of vehicles are being photographed every day and records are then kept of the number-plate along with the date, time and location of the vehicle. These images are being stored for a number of years. In some cases, the photograph of the vehicle may also include images of the front-seat passengers.

ANPR, which has expanded enormously without any real public debate or knowledge, raises huge privacy concerns. This technology, originally used to monitor unregistered vehicles, is now routinely being used by the police to locate vehicles (and their owners) that might appear on other – and often dubious – police databases.

Regulation

CCTV is dangerously under regulated.

Guidelines around CCTV in the UK were last updated in legislation when the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 was introduced. There is also a surveillance camera Code of Practice, and a Surveillance Camera Commissioner whose role it is to encourage compliance. The code itself it is not actually binding.

Without detailed legislative regulation the risk of CCTV being misused and abused has always been high. For example, two Merseyside council workers were caught spying on a woman in her bathroom using CCTV, even though the camera was not meant to film inside her home.

The large-scale expansion of CCTV in recent years also poses a threat to our way of life. Surveillance technology is assembled in a piecemeal way and often under the radar. Too much surveillance can fundamentally alter the relationship between the individual and the State, and the experience of widespread visual surveillance can have a chilling effect on free speech and activity.

The lack of debate and safeguards around these innovations becomes all the more striking as technology overtakes even our most far-fetched predictions.

Given the risk that unrestricted surveillance cameras pose to unjustifiably intrude in our privacy, Liberty continues to call for stricter legislative regulation on their use.