Benefits of sharing CCTV and networks

The commissioner’s speech on how organisations can collaborate to share networks and CCTV systems, and the benefits and risks of this.

Image of a CCTV camera

I would like to thank BT for inviting me to speak at this event.

I’ve been in this role 10 months now and have spoken at numerous events. Most have these have focused on my role and what I’m doing so it’s quite refreshing to be asked speak at an event where I can talk about what’s happening in the industry. Where users of CCTV are proactively looking at working together to improve CCTV systems for everyone. By that I mean the public, police forces, local authorities, the private sector and so on.


I think I must start sitting astride the elephant in the room although we all know it’s there – austerity measures. The financial environment for the public sector continues to be a challenge. And in the next financial year alone (2015-16) councils will have to find £2.6 billion of savings – a mind-boggling figure! We’re still in an economy where savings must be made in nearly every aspect of the services provided to the public. So, is the provision of CCTV a public service? It’s not a statutory service so wouldn’t a council looking to save money reasonably look at reducing or removing CCTV?

What’s the purpose of CCTV – crime prevention? A recent survey carried out for the Police and Crime Commissioner in Dyfed Powys says that CCTV does not deter crime. He says he’s going to cut CCTV funding to pay for more ‘bobbies on the beat’. He has a point doesn’t he? If CCTV doesn’t serve a purpose why keep it?

Of course I’m playing devils advocate here – it is a valuable tool in preventing and deterring crime, keeping the public safe and helping the fight against terrorism across the country. It is worth the investment and communities do value it.

Nonetheless as I said, public sector austerity measures are still biting and will continue to for the foreseeable future so for some Local Authorities CCTV is an area where they will look to make savings.

Last month I was speaking to a London borough CCTV manager who was quite frank with me and told me that financial constraints are leading local authorities to take measures that are threatening the levels of CCTV expertise within them. CCTV managers’ roles are being cut and supervisors with little or no knowledge of CCTV are being left to report to senior managers.

Elsewhere, I know that councils are reducing the services they provide and not manning control rooms at night – others have closed them completely.

Whilst I believe regular reviews of systems are a must to ensure cameras still serve their purpose I honestly think cutting CCTV as part of an austerity measure is quite short-sighted. And the value of CCTV is being thoroughly underestimated.

You only have to look at the riots that took place in London and many other cities across the Country in 2011 to see how CCTV helped bring those who’d looted and burnt down buildings in our cities to justice.

In the days, weeks and months that followed these events images from CCTV were released on a daily basis on TV, in the press and in some areas of London on bill boards. These were images of people who had committed criminal acts and many were brought to justice because of the images. So, that alone shows the value of CCTV in the criminal justice system.

Use of CCTV

As part of my role I’m entrusted to ensure that surveillance camera systems are used to support and protect communities – not spy on them. To help me do there is the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice which contains 12 guiding principles which, if followed, will mean cameras are only ever used proportionately, transparently and effectively. I’m required to:

  • encourage compliance with the code
  • review the operation of the code
  • advise on any amendments to how the code should develop

I speak to as many relevant people as possible – from camera installers, users and managers to civil liberty groups, the public and the police. I believe the best whey to get the balance right is to get everyone around the same table.

And as you will know CCTV is used by a whole host of organisations and the images used during and after the riots were collected from private and public sector cameras. The reason for its use also varies from public safety, deterring crime, traffic management and crowd control but to name a few.

More often than not systems are used in the same areas independently of each other, covering the same space, using different networks or fibre and for the same purpose. So, if we’re all doing the same or similar things why aren’t we doing it together? Why aren’t we stream-lining, collaborating and learning from one another? I’m not saying we aren’t because I know there is collaboration happening between organisations.

I recently visited the public space CCTV control room in Rugby. This was a great example of working together. The public space CCTV is funded by local businesses – the maintenance, network costs, staffing costs and so on. It’s operated by an independent organisation, Rugby First, but as an agent of the Local Authority. Whilst not sharing networks they work closely with the police and business to target any possibly suspicious behavior. I don’t believe that this kind of collaboration is not unusual but what was interesting about Rugby was that they are not funded by local government. I believe it’s the only model of its kind in the country.

Of course there are other excellent examples of collaboration such as Glasgow’s recently opened control room ahead of the Commonwealth games linking numerous agencies together. And you will hear about others during the event today.

So, collaboration is definitely taking place but on what sort of scale? Is it the exception rather than the norm? I often hear stories of police not being able to download data in the right format. Or that a shoplifter being tracked by council public space CCTV is lost when they walk into a shopping centre where the system is privately owned as they are not linked.

There seem to be clear benefits of collaboration and designing networks that work together across organisational and geographical boundaries.

Benefits of collaboration

In a time of austerity you could see a situation where large metropolitan cities like London or Manchester where multiple agencies could pool resources. They could brigade control rooms to reduce their number to cover an entire city. Rather than the current situation where there are numerous control rooms. This would almost certainly reduce operational costs and lead to other savings.

In turn this could lead to much better working across geographical boundaries. If you had one control room covering a number of London boroughs you could track offenders or victims as they move from one Borough to the next. We all know that organised criminals do not operate in one location they move around from Borough to Borough and County to County. Greater collaboration would enable police forces to react and deal with cross border crime more efficiently.

You would also have different agencies using the same manufacturers and equipment. I often hear that a police force can’t export data from a camera system in a format they can use. Or that what has been exported cannot be played in a court. If multiple agencies are using the same manufactured equipment this can only help to minimise this.

You may be aware of the CPS digitalisation programme that is taking place. When thinking about collaboration it’s worth considering what the endgame or endgames are. If one of them is to use CCTV footage in court to help with the prosecution of criminals. Then the CPS must be one of the organisations involved in any collaborative work. There seems to me to be an opportunity here for everyone in this room to work with the CPS to ensure that how they digitalise courts meets with your requirements. It would be a disaster to end up with something that isn’t fit for purpose.

Finally, collaborative working can create a great environment to raise standards across the industry. This is something I’m determined to do and principle eight of the Code of Practice talks about systems meeting competency and technical standards. At the moment there are great differences in camera systems and operating practices across different organisations. By working together and harmonising working practices it offers the opportunity to work to similar standards across the board.

So, there appear to be quite a lot of benefits to collaborating and working together. Although it is not without its pitfalls and the risks need to be carefully considered.

Risks to think about

With more stakeholders using and accessing the same systems is there a greater risk to an individual’s privacy. Do they know that the system they thought was operated by their local council is now also being used by the local police force? Would this cause concern? I think I probably might and that could lead to a lack of public support for the system. This relates to principles one to three in the code – there needs to be transparent and open consultation with the public and all interested parties. People need to know why the system is there, what it does and who’s responsible for it.

And with numerous organisations working together to offer a completely integrated CCTV model it’s quite possible that it could result in blurred lines of responsibility. Who does what and when? Who is the data controller – important when you consider the regulatory role of the ICO.

Linked to this is a risk that any handover or sign off can become horribly bureaucratic. There must be robust governance arrangements in place from the start with clear lines of demarcation and responsibilities as well as simple processes.

And different stakeholders will want CCTV for different reasons – a Council may want it for public safety or traffic management but he police may want it for detection of crime. Differing mandates need to be managed and an agreed operational requirement or requirements developed from which policies and operating procedures can fall.

As we move towards digital solutions, Wi-Fi hotspots and greater sharing of data with more users having access to the same systems security of networks and data are arguably greater. When digital systems are built appropriate security models need to be developed to ensure the signals can’t be breached or hacked. So, is the data secure, is the wireless network secure and who has access to the data are all areas that need careful thought.

But if the principles in the code of practice are followed these risks can be managed and I believe that the benefits of collaboration far outweigh the risks.

Summing up

I was once told a joke that was quite politically incorrect and actually not that funny! It was about a driver asking someone for directions to which the response was ‘well, you wouldn’t want to be starting from here’.

When I started thinking about what I was going to say today this popped into my head. I thought about when CCTV started to spread across the country in the 1990’s and last decade. It was done in a way that was inconsistent, ad hoc and unregulated all at great pace with systems designed in isolation from one another. That is certainly not a criticism it’s just the way things happened.

So, the joke made me think – if we were starting from a blank canvas designing multi functioning CCTV networks we wouldn’t want to start from where we did in the 1990’s.

We would almost certainly want to start where we are here, today – in the BT Tower. We’d want to build systems that worked together, operated jointly by multiple agencies across geographical and organisational boundaries – we would want to collaborate.

So, getting back astride the elephant. We are still in the maelstrom of challenging financial times for the public sector – that is a fact. There is a danger that Local Authorities could pare back the use of CCTV to protect public spaces or remove it all together in order to make the savings they have to make.

They must be transparent about what they’re doing with CCTV, what the outcomes are as well as the benefits in order to justify continued spend.

A multi agency approach to CCTV provides an opportunity to review and improve systems as well as offer up savings. So, collaboration could be a way forward but it’s not without risks but they are risks that with careful consideration can be managed.

Published 19 January 2015