Humanity vs surveillance: commissioner’s speech to Stirling University

Commissioner’s speech at Stirling University's Centre for Research into Information Surveillance and Privacy on 23 November 2015.

Tony Porter

Good evening and many thanks to the Centre for Research into Information Surveillance and Privacy (CRISP) and Stirling University for inviting me to preside over this lecture today.

Ladies and gentleman of the jury society is charged with scant regard for its own people’s civil liberties and privacy for allowing an unfettered proliferation of surveillance across the country. In my capacity of Surveillance Camera Commissioner, and judge, I will be facilitating today’s hearing. First we will hear the arguments from the prosecution that surveillance has gone too far and then those in defence that surveillance is crucial in today’s society.

Opening remarks of the prosecution

Surveillance cameras sit on every street corner, in every pub and on every mode of public transport. They are hardwired into our cities and into the psyche of the public. It’s said that in an urban area in the UK you are likely to be captured by about 30 surveillance camera systems as you go about your daily business – not cameras, systems! If you want to know that’s probably around 300 cameras!

According to estimates from the British Security Industry Association there are anywhere between 4 to 6 million surveillance cameras in the UK. Indeed I’m sure you will agree that seems like an extremely high number and that estimate is over 2 years old so it can only have increased since then.

Are we living in a Big Brother society, have we got the balance right between our own basic human right to privacy and the surveillance camera culture that has swept across the UK? Whilst surveillance cameras may be a relatively new phenomenon – coming to the fore in the last 20 to 25 years – surveillance is not. So, I put it to you that the balance is completely out of step with the pressing need for surveillance.

We are living in a society where our every movement is tracked not just by cameras but by numerous devices and methods. If the goal of modern day surveillance is to keep us safe from terrorist extremists, organised criminals and yobs on our streets who gave consent for this? Did you? I don’t remember giving mine.

I want to draw a comparison to something you may have recently read about – the national register of 1939. On the cusp of the World War 2 an army of officials were sent to every house and institution in the UK. They had with them a compulsory questionnaire that had to be completed – names, addresses, occupation and so on. Handwritten records for every person living in England and Wales, compulsory for all without exception. Mass surveillance.

You might be surprised to know that virtually everyone complied with this and filled the form on in time. They didn’t mind the government accumulating and storing this information about them.

This is interesting because in 1915 the government tried a similar register, which fell flat on its face. It was connected to conscription and mothers hid the existence of their sons in an effort to stop them going to war.

Why was the register a success in 1939 – rationing. Government needed to know not only who was working, but who was doing hard physical work so needed more food. So, if the wrong information was given or excluded by someone they would also be excluded from eating well too.

Here there was a clear benefit for this mass collection of data, the intrusion into one’s personal life was far outweighed by the benefit.

If you compare this to surveillance in the past 10 to 15 years – and the government said recently that mass surveillance of the British public really stepped up a gear after 9/11 – it is far less intrusive.

Today the state has access to follow us where we go, listen to our conversations, track what websites we visit and so on. In 1939 Britain that would be the equivalent of them speaking to all of our friends and loved ones about us, reading our private letters and peering through all of our photograph albums.

The Investigatory Powers Bill, which was published in draft a few weeks ago bolsters this further.

So, yes surveillance and surveillance cameras in particular do have a role in keeping us safe but at what cost to our own humanity, our own privacy? Society stands accused of getting the balance completely wrong.


Next the legislative framework for surveillance – are you clear on what it is because I’m not sure I am.

Take surveillance cameras – the data they capture is covered by the Data Protection Act, my role covers some elements of installation and standards and the Chief Surveillance Commissioner covers directed covert surveillance using cameras. But is anyone really clear how it all fits together.

And here I would like to put forward that the use of automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras have an extremely unsteady legal framework. There is an argument that article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights refers to the qualified privilege regarding interference into a person’s privacy by lawful use. Because there is no law that enables ANPR, does that make the use unlawful?

I am not 100% clear on this and when I’ve spoken to the Home Office they’ve informed me that ANPR is just another tool in the policing toolkit and so does not require a statutory authority. So, as long as National ANPR Standards and Procedures (NASP) offers sufficient safeguards to protect against the article 8 right against intrusion into privacy, then any legal challenge is set to fail. Or is it?

The crucial thing here is the data capture capacity that ANPR has and the retention period. Is it necessary or proportionate to retain the data of innocent citizens for the current retention period of two years, if at all? And there are some quarters that would like that period extended further. At present around 8,300 ANPR cameras nationally, submit between 25 and 35 million ANPR ‘read’ records to the National ANPR Data Centre (NADC) daily. I’m sure you will agree ladies and gentlemen of the jury that is an astonishing figure

An associated point to this is the data mining potential of up to 35 million data reads. ANPR in UK must surely be one of the largest data gatherers of its citizens in the world. Mining of meta data – overlaying against other databases can be far more intrusive than communication intercept.

ANPR could be one of the world’s largest non-military surveillance systems and probably contains more data about people than the NHS. Governance of such a system is central to its safe operation. Governance should be broadly based, expert, involving lay voices with clear lines of accountability and where possible takes place in public

But who ever gave their consent to this, where is the legislation and where was the debate in parliament? So, I argue that some forms of surveillance have no legislative framework whatsoever.

Advancing technology

My next point is technology. It seems the more we are subject to surveillance the more ways there are to do so and with ever advancing technology. Technology is moving at the speed of light and what was once just a bog standard CCTV camera is now a device capable of facial recognition or predicating behavior.

With this technology are we running before we can walk? You may have seen the media stories a few months ago about the use of automatic facial recognition at the Download music festival by the Leicestershire police force. When it should have been Slipknot, Muse or Kiss picking up the headlines for their head-banging (I’m told these are heavy metal acts that performed at the festival) it was facial recognition. This is because there was a perception that nobody knew it was being used.

Here in Scotland we have the public space CCTV system in Glasgow – one of the most sophisticated in the UK that allegedly can track individuals’ movements using an algorithm. The system is able to assign a unique signature to each person that walks past a camera, in real time, and then track their movements through the city.

What is worrying is that there is currently no legal written guidance about when and how this system should be used and civil liberty groups are challenging the council, Police Scotland and the Scottish Government on this point.

But there’s more. With facial recognition you require a database of images, faces, to match against. The FBI has – around 51 million images. In the UK our database is touching 18 million images made up of custody photos - they include photos of people never charged, or others cleared of an offence. Why are these innocent people on these databases? This is something that causes me, and the Biometrics and Information Commissioners a great deal of concern.

And like with ANPR who gave their consent for this sort of highly intrusive system. Do the public know that what they thought was CCTV is now a much more highly sophistic surveillance device? There are challenges in other parts of the world – for example Australia – where people are saying this type of facial recognition is wrong.

We’ve also seen it reported that senior police officers have said that CCTV cameras should be placed lower down – at face level – so the new facial recognition technology can be used as effectively as possible.

Currently CCTV is perched up high looking down away from an individual’s line of sight. But how would they feel if it was at head height – literally in their face. And how would they feel if they knew the camera set up to protect them was now a device that captured their image, which was then put into a database and compared to millions images to see if they are a potential threat. Is that protecting them? Is that keeping them safe?

So, technology is moving too far, too quickly before of the implications of it’s use can be fully considered and understood.

Poor systems

To use systems like automatic facial recognition you need fairly good kit or a fairly high specification and digital cameras, which leads me on to my next point.

As technology advances much of our legacy systems lag behind unable to support what is emerging. This is particularly true of local authorities – many CCTV systems are not of a high enough specification to support facial recognition or algorithms that can predict behaviour. We have systems which are aging and decrepit and we are very much part of ‘analogue UK’, I thought we are in the digital age?! So, whilst the technology is there a question remains whether it can be successfully used.

I ask you to consider this. If the kit is breaking down how can it protect us and if it can’t what is the point of having it? I saw an article in the press a few months ago, which said that cameras in Walsall were out of action 3,000 times in three years! That is just unacceptable.

And where there are systems in place the quality of the images that are captured are so poor it renders them useless. The police force in Cambridge have said they will no longer recover CCTV for bicycle thefts in the city because what they get is of such poor quality it is of no help in solving the crime. Cambridge has the most bicycle thefts in the UK per year.

Equally, people are walking around thinking that CCTV in their towns is keeping them safe. They are walking around under a falsehood because it isn’t, it’s old, not working and not monitored.


And why is the kit so poor in some areas? Because nobody is working to any recognised standards. Only around 2 to 3% of all local authorities in England and Wales comply with any recognised British standard.

But there are standards available for organisations to comply with and follow so why aren’t they doing so – 2 reasons.

Firstly, the standards framework is so complex that no one who isn’t a technical expert in CCTV can navigate their way through them to actually work out which ones are relevant. I’ve been in this role 18 months and I don’t fully understand them! My standards board, which is full of technical industry experts and whose main purpose is to simplify the standards framework, still haven’t managed it. So, if they can’t wade their way through it how can a run-of-the-mill control room operator possibly hope to?

Secondly, British and international standards are not free they have to be purchased. To buy all the possible standards you could have in relation to a CCTV control room it would cost £1,402. That may not seem like a huge amount to ensure that a system used to protect the public is effective and efficient.

But we’re still in the grips of a biting austerity measures and none have been hit harder than the public sector. In this financial year alone local authorities are required to find £2.6 billion of savings. Whilst £1,400 might not seem like it will break the bank if that’s extrapolated across the numerous schemes these organisations are likely to operate it is not an insignificant amount.

Standards are substandard but even if organisations are meeting certain standards are members of the public made aware? This leads me on to my next point.

Public blindness

Do the public know they are being monitored and the factors that affect that?

Are they aware of what technology can or can’t do. On one hand you have TV programmes like 24 or NCIS depicting a surveillance camera system that can pick out the time on someone’s watch from a million miles away, zooming a million and one pixels up their nose.

A point I made earlier in most cases the reality is that lots of CCTV systems are fairly old and will give you a grainy image at best if they’re not high definition. On the other hand you have the advent of facial recognition technology and algorithms that can predict behavior.

In many cases this technology is being used with out the widespread knowledge of the public causing an outcry from civil liberties groups – quite rightly I think.

We’re also seeing an increase in cameras being used for more than one purpose. So, the camera that people thought was there for public safety is now being used for traffic management 50% of the time. If this dual use was made more transparent amongst communities would they be happy with this? Or would they be worried that the camera that they understood was keeping their community safe was actually only doing that half of the time.

And whilst I’m on traffic management it’s worth briefly mentioning ANPR. In the UK ANPR is everywhere – it’s hardwired into our daily lives. The police use it for counter terrorism and serious organised crime – it’s an essential tool in combating both of these.

More recently ANPR is being used to monitor if road tax has been paid on vehicles. The cameras read licence plates and if the vehicle is not registered as having paid road tax or it’s lapsed a fine will be issued – I have no problem with this.

The ANPR system in the UK captures around 27 million images each day – a huge number. Surveillance on a massive scale. However, whilst there is some transparency on the number of images captured – which is generally number plates the total number of ANPR cameras remains a mystery. I can understand why the police would not want to reveal the location of cameras as this could influence how organised criminals use the road network. But I see no downside to saying how many cameras there are – it’s keeping the public in the dark.

So, across the surveillance camera landscape there is certainly a level of ‘public blindness’. If their eyes were opened to some of the issues I’ve mentioned – facial recognition, cuts to services and ANPR – how would they feel about surveillance

Individuals must be given the full picture so they can make an informed decision around their support for CCTV. If these uses are revealed in sensationalist media articles or through people like Snowden rather than through serious consultation with communities it will only damage the image of surveillance and the good it can do as opposed to the bad.

Effect of surveillance cameras

Next – surveillance doesn’t prevent crime. There is no robust evidence that cameras prevent crime. You even have a police and crime commissioner in Wales removing funding from CCTV because of this very fact. Take the awful events that took place in Paris last weekend would a camera have stopped these events?

We have the most cameras in the world. But we can’t watch all the people all of the time and most importantly cameras can’t get inside someone’s head to see what they’re thinking, what they are planning or what they are about to do.

So, if cameras don’t prevent crime why have we got so many, why are they on every street corner?

Closing remarks

In closing I put it to you that the balance of surveillance against the needs of society is way out. Cameras don’t prevent crime, they don’t work and where they do are substandard. Technology is moving far too quickly and without the consent of the public. If it’s humanity versus surveillance – surveillance is winning hands down, it’s not a fair fight.

Opening remarks of the defence

My learned friend has presented a skewed reflection of surveillance in society. A posture that keeps us safe; keeps traffic flowing; provides reassurance to parents when our children our out, in tragic circumstances – 7/7, Boston, Paris – allows law enforcement to catch perpetrators.

What is called for is a robust defence of technology that is seamlessly intertwined in our daily lives.

What is called for is a clear eyed vision of the risks and threats facing society in the twenty-first century:

  • the world is not flat
  • the tooth fairy exists only in 5 year olds’ imaginations
  • surveillance supports society it doesn’t spy on them

People like surveillance

CCTV and other types surveillance camera are everywhere and here to stay. There is no getting away from that – it’s a fact – there are up to 6 million cameras in the UK alone. How do you remove something so widespread, so ingrained and such big business? I don’t think you can.

And people like CCTV. Research carried out by Synectics last year showed 84% of people support CCTV in a public space. They want it there protecting them, to reassure them and keep them safe.

Furthermore, in the UK we’ve seen a growing market of people installing CCTV on their homes and in their homes with apps that can remotely monitor them if they are triggered. More and more people are using dash-cams on their cars and wearing helmet-cams when riding a bike.

Even though members of the public are much more surveillance savvy. They’ve heard that Google are capturing their data every time they use their search engine. They’ve read about GCHQ taking control of targets smart phones and they’ve seen the fallout from what Edward Snowden has said.

But they are still buying cameras for their own purposes. In fact only 5% of CCTV cameras operated in England and Wales are operated by the police or local authorities. The idea that we are a surveillance state – one nation under CCTV could be argued to be a complete fallacy.

Catches bad people

Where would we be without CCTV or surveillance, which leads me on to my next argument. There are bad people out there doing bad things – only last weekend in Paris we had unbelievable acts of atrocity on innocent people with over 120 people losing their lives.

Yes, a camera can not prevent an act of random violence or crime but they can help identify and catch the perpetrators. Take the incident which lead to the proliferation of CCTV across the UK in the 1990s – the abduction of Jamie Bulger. I’m sure you will recall the grainy images of the toddler being led away from a Merseyside shopping centre by his two 10 year old killers. These images were replayed night after night on TV, becoming iconic. And whilst they did not prevent the horrific crime the images led to the belief that those who carried it out would be caught.

More recently in France with the Charlie Hebdo attack the use of CCTV images in the vicinity of the shooting proved to be crucial in quickly assessing the situation and engineering the police response. The cooperation between the police and judicial authorities was able to guarantee access to evidence that was crucial in identifying the brothers who’d carried out the attack. The information that was quickly made available to the authorities made it possible for them to direct resources for the manhunt. In the UK I know there are organisations looking at how they can stream live images to the authorities during an emergency such as a terrorist attack.

Surveillance cameras can also play their part in less terrifying crimes. I visited a London Borough recently who in one month through their use of ANPR identified and detained 8 stolen cars worth almost £150,000 – one borough, in one month. This sort of thing doesn’t make the headlines but it helps remove criminals from our streets and has reunited eight people with their cars, which I’m sure you will agree is pretty important to them.

So, surveillance does catch bad people, it does help lead to arrests and convictions and keep our cities safe.

Advancing technology

Is advancing technology is something to be fearful of? I disagree – it’s something that should be embraced, particularly when it is not done as a knee-jerk reaction to solve a problem.

Take the police’s use of body worn video (BWV). Virtually all the forces in England and Wales (and Scotland) are trialling the kit and some have rolled it out fully. This has been done in a measured way, informing the public, ensuring that officers are trained and that they understand the privacy implications.

What’s the effect on policing of body worn video? In one area of the country where the kit is used at incidents of domestic abuse and then shown to the defendant guilty pleas are 33% higher at the first hearing in the first week. That saves police time and the taxpayer money.

Body worn video can also be used to hold forces to account to see how officers have handled situations and I know all stop and search BWV recordings are viewed by one force’s ethics committee and marked out of 10. Body worn video makes policing more transparent and officers more accountable.

With algorithms that can predict behaviour than can have a great societal impact. There are already algorithms in use that can predict suicides. They are used at train stations and can pick up tell tale signs of people who have committed suicide at train stations. Pacing back and forth at a deserted platform and so on – the algorithm picks this behaviour up and alerts control room staff thereby potentially preventing a fatality. Which not only saves someone’s life but also means train services aren’t disrupted.

And can other algorithms be developed – for example to pick up on the signals of a gas attack on an ATM, which blows it up so the money can be accessed. Could they be used to pick up suspicious activity at airports or ports?

My learned friend mentioned facial recognition and right that he should – what potential this gives us!

Good up to date databases means we can identify known criminals before they actually commit crimes. That’s why it was used at the Download festival that was mentioned earlier – to stop known criminals who target music festivals and it actually kept a number out. Yes, its use wasn’t promoted as well as it could have been but I’ve been assured by the force that these have been lessons that they’ve learnt and will be resolved in any future use of the technology.

And its not only the public sector that can benefit from facial recognition. There’s potential for retailers to spot known shoplifters or even high end stores to identify high worth customers to give them the red-carpet treatment – obviously in this second scenario people would need to consent to being added to a database.

Widespread use of facial recognition may be a little way off but what is not is the use of drones. Over the past year the use of drones has increased considerably. I visited the police and crime commissioner in Cumbria last month who tells me they’ve purchased 2 drones. Why? They are used to help locate lost walkers on the fells – much cheaper than using a helicopter and involves less manpower too. They’re also being used by fire brigades to assess potentially hazardous fires from afar meaning they can minimise risks to fire fighters.

So, I put it to you advancing surveillance technology can have massive benefits for society in keeping them safe, protecting them and saving the taxpayer money.


My learned friend also says standards are poor. Some may argue that this is correct but much is being done to raise them.

Last year I published a self assessment tool that any organisation can use to see how closely they comply with the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice. And many have done so.

Only this month I have launched a third party certification scheme. A simple, accessible and affordable scheme. It enables organisations to clearly demonstrate that they comply with the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice and for relevant authorities it’s essential that they can evidence they have shown due regard to the code – certification enables them to do this.

Lastly, I’m currently working with my standards group on a piece of work to refresh of the operational requirement guidance (last revised in 2009) designed by the Home Office’s Centre for Applied Science and Technology and first utilised by local authorities in the 1990s when bidding for Home Office funding.

The purpose of the document is to provide clear guidance to non-technical users wishing to buy a CCTV system that is fit for purpose – so not the people in this room!

I want to create something that’s simple to follow and enables a check of compliance with the code from ‘cradle to grave’. So, it will cover all the stages from thinking you might need a system, getting it installed and right through to maintenance.

It’s aligned to the code (and other standards) so following the operational requirement process will by its nature mean that schemes are installed that meet the 12 guiding principles. It’s still work in progress but I expect I will have something ready for publication early in the new year.

So, to say there are no standards is just wrong – there are and my work over the past 18 months has sought to shine a light on these and think of other innovative ways to raise standards across the board.

Privacy by design

Finally, my last point is around privacy. We’ve heard the arguments around how surveillance cameras are extremely intrusive. I fully understand that if you believe that a camera is tracking you or peering into your garden or your home how unsettling that could feel. I must say most of the emails in my inbox are from upset people whose neighbour has just put up a camera they think is doing just that.

But think about state surveillance cameras or those used by large corporations. Most of these organisations should have completed privacy impact assessments and their systems will have privacy by design built in. By that I mean if a camera pans over or looks into a residential area the images are pixelated so the operator can’t actually see into someone’s house, garden or a school.

Systems are also being developed so what the operator views is a recreation of what is being filmed populated by avatars rather than people – this completely anonymises the data being captured. Those images can then be unencrypted if there is an incident.

Closing remarks

In closing I put it to you that the society has got the balance of surveillance against the needs of its people exactly right. It protects people and helps apprehend criminals; advancing technology can help hold law enforcement to account, save money and save lives; much is being done to raise standards and we are seeing privacy by design being built into numerous systems. In the twenty first century humanity needs surveillance just has it has done in the past.

Summing up

Ladies and gentlemen – society stands charged with a heinous crime. Having scant regard for its own peoples civil liberties and privacy for allowing an unfettered proliferation of surveillance across the country.

You have heard the evidence; you have heard the arguments around how the essence of what it is to be human has been stripped away. You have heard the arguments that surveillance supports our very efforts to remain human…and alive.

I will take a majority verdict. All those who think society is guilty raise your hand…..all those who support surveillance raise your hand.

I will now take questions from the floor.

Published 30 November 2015