This speech about surveillance technologies in society covers facial recognition, video analytics in law enforcement, body-worn video, drones and automatic number plate recognition.

Tony Porter

Surveillance Camera Commissioner, Tony Porter:

Surveillance technologies in society

Good morning. I’d like to thank the RESPECT, SURVEILLE and IRRIS teams for inviting me to speak at this event. So far, all the events I’ve spoken to or been to have been in the UK. I’m looking forward to the European perspective.

I thought it might be useful if I give you a little background about my role as Surveillance Camera Commissioner.

  • it was created under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012
  • I was appointed by the Home Secretary, but am independent from government
  • the role covers England and Wales
  • I’m entrusted to ensure that surveillance camera systems are used to support and protect communities – not spy on them
  • the surveillance camera code of practice contains 12 guiding principles, which, if followed, will mean cameras are only ever used proportionately, transparently and effectively

My role is 3-fold, to:

  • encourage compliance with the code
  • review the operation of the code
  • advise on any amendments to how the code should develop Our annual report which is due to be published in a week or 2

The commissioner

Prior to accepting this role, I was Head of Intelligence at Barclays Bank and before that a police commander having had responsibility for counter-terrorism investigations throughout the London 2012 Olympic Games.

So I get the use of technology in supporting the executive arm of the state - supporting investigations and providing reassurance. I also get how invasive it can be – and how the public trust must be protected like a Ming vase and cherished. Once lost, it is not easy to recover.

Importantly, I also understand the speed at which technology develops – arguably quicker than governments can legislate – it can go from 0 to 60 in a flash. All these issues lie at the heart of my role.

Surveillance in the UK

In the UK, CCTV is everywhere both publicly and privately and semi-privately owned, this latter example causes me a few headaches . Its functionality is expanding by way of technology – complicated algorithms that fundamentally alter the capacity and capability of these systems – more of this in a moment. In general, it is welcomed by the public – we use a phrase ‘surveillance by consent’ to mean the public consent to being observed where there is a pressing need and it is in their best interests. Like policing by consent.

Synectics research showed 84% of people support CCTV in a public space – is this genuine informed consent? What about dual use? 20% crime prevention, 80% traffic enforcement and revenue raising? These questions weren’t asked!

How will the public ever have informed consent when the nature of technological advances is moving forward at the speed of light? How many of those respondents know what an algorithm is? How many truly understand the potential to track the minutiae of our everyday lives – not just with location specific information but assessment and analysis of our intent!!

In the UK, CCTV impacts on the public psyche significantly in the criminal justice arena particularly in the reassurance it offers. Take the riots that spread across the UK in 2011 following the shooting of Mark Duggan in London. You may remember the images of the 100-year-old furniture store in London burning to the ground? 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 billboards. CCTV was the silent guardian that helped to make that happen!

In my capacity within national security, I too benefited from this application. A small group of young jihadis seeking to exfiltrate a suicide bomber out of Birmingham international airport subsequently enabled me to arrest a network of terrorist in the UK and further afield.

My youngest daughter started college last month. The young adults were asked to write about their feelings around the CCTV/surveillance environment – just a paragraph. They were then given an insight into the estimated 6 million cameras in UK public space (not all state-owned) and asked to imagine how they would feel if each of those cameras wasn’t beautifully wrapped and packed in a ‘dome’ or a casing, or sited hundreds of yards away in a discrete location. They were told the 6 million were now on red poles at face height in every city and every town? Discuss?

The cognoscenti amongst you will know that the 6 million refers to a research study completed by British Security Industry Association. The literary amongst you will guess my daughter is studying English literature and the discussion was around George Orwell’s 1984. The sensitive amongst you all have guessed my daughter was dying of embarrassment hoping nobody would ‘out her’ as the daughter of the Surveillance Camera Commissioner. You will not be surprised to hear the tolerance levels for public space CCTV dropped in the class room!

Thankfully, that’s not a society we live in and Orwell’s novel was fiction. Returning to reality, the incident which was probably the main catalyst for the creation of my role – Project Champion. A ‘ring of steel’ erected in a predominantly Muslim area of the Birmingham to monitor a terrorist threat. There was no consultation with the local community, who were outraged to discover they were all being monitored as potential terrorists. The system of around 200 cameras was never switched on and it cost around £3 million. So just because we can, doesn’t mean we should!

So, we cannot underestimate the power of communities and the balance that must be maintained. Yes, CCTV is welcomed but only where it is proportionate, where there is transparency regarding its use and where it is not intrusive.

But technology moves on rapidly and the camera that 10 years ago which provided a grainy, shaky image now provides a picture in HD quality showing every blemish and wrinkle on a face! Is the intrusion getting greater? The camera K4 technology perhaps can be sited a kilometre away, people need never know. The obligation of the state is arguable greater in these circumstances – surveillance by consent.

Facial recognition/video analytics

Take this hypothesis: ‘The hot wiring of surveillance and technology into our society represents an unstoppable tide.’

Take automated facial recognition. Two weeks ago, Interpol gathered 24 technical and biometrics experts and examiners from 16 countries, who produced a ‘best practice guide’ for the quality, format and transmission of images to be used in facial recognition. It will be circulated to all 190 Interpol member countries to serve as a guideline for improving the quality of images necessary for accurate and effective facial recognition.

Part of my role is ‘rolling back the relentless incursion of the state into the lives of its citizens ‘ I am extremely interested in this development – is this a move away from seeking specific persons to GCHQ style bulk interception of information…

There’s already a fair amount of information collected in terms of passenger records. This is the next step. Law enforcement agencies want the most efficient systems, but there has to be a balance between security and privacy. Some of the countries perhaps sharing databases might not have the best human rights records – Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Iran, etc – all form part of that 190-country Interpol diaspora.

Who will vouchsafe the efficacy, the legitimacy of the libraries that will be used to inform that database? How do you feel about a false positive emanating from a country whose adherence to such policies might be dubious at best?

In the US, the Federal Bureau of Investigation recently launched its Next Generation Identification (NGI) program, which is a national biometric database including facial, iris, and fingerprint recognition data. The FBI estimates that, by 2015, its database will contain private data on up to 4.3 million Americans who have not been accused of a crime. The NGI program is expected to expand to include a nationwide DNA dragnet system to which officers can upload samples collected on the go with portable rapid DNA scanners.

According to Interpol’s press release, ‘In 2015, Interpol will host its first facial recognition symposium to increase awareness of facial recognition activities among member countries and to encourage the sharing of facial images with the new database.’

  • the possibility that the FBI might share private biometric data on Americans with an international non-governmental organisation introduces new questions as to what effect such a move would have on citizens’ privacy and US national sovereignty and security
  • could Interpol’s system produce false positives that cause innocent citizens to face criminal charges in foreign countries that lack Europe’s human rights protections?
  • what defence will the database have against hackers? Under what legal basis does Interpol have the authority to collect private data on individuals without their consent given its status as a non-governmental organisation?
  • will Europeans some day be required to have their faces scanned, photographed, stored in a database by Interpol, and subsequently shared with law enforcement agencies worldwide in order to fly on an aeroplane?

Facial recognition and video analytics technology are now a reality and more widespread. As usual, it is the private sector that leads the way with the gambling and retail sectors using the systems to identify high worth customers - suspected cheating activity etc.

Leicestershire police force are the first UK force to begin trials of facial recognition using photos taken in custody as their matching database. I understand the images on their database are of a good quality as you expect they would be if they’d been taken in a custody suite. For a database to be effective, you need a good image and that does not mean the pixel rate. It’s also down to the lighting and the angle at which the image is captured. CCTV cameras are often perched up high, looking down – could we see cameras positioned at different heights to make use of this new technology. Could what my daughter’s teacher suggested about cameras become a reality in the future? I don’t know?

So far, in the UK, public sector use has been confined to protecting the national infrastructure – at our borders and other places of significance such as power stations.

Video analytics in law enforcement

As the technology gets better we have seen law enforcement agencies take an interest and the Home Office have a team looking at VALE. In the UK we have 5 programmes that are seeking to develop this technology! Two of which are:

  1. Suicide predictors In the UK we have several hundred people kill themselves from railway platform each year. CCTV indicates their behaviour reflects a pattern: * visit the platform several times * on the platform – move from front to rear as trains arrive * nervous behaviour – looking around Can video analytics predict this behaviour and alert the authorities?

  2. Tunnel/metal thieves * can video analytics identify this phenomena * motion-activated * 2 or 3 personnel * time-specific

Body-worn video

We are also seeing a proliferation in the use of BWV in the UK and most BWV records sound so is rather more intrusive that just plain CCTV. A number of police forces are trialling BWV, a small camera worn on a lapel.

We have visited forces to see first-hand how valuable this technology can be at capturing evidence. The forces we have spoken to have policies in place to ensure that the members of the public know when they are being recorded, that the data is secure and only the right people have access to that data. They also have the right software to export the data. I’m fairly satisfied that how the police are going about the body-worn trials is right and correct.

However, it is not only the police that is embracing BWV – it’s being increasingly used in other parts of the public and private sector. It’s being used by traffic wardens, environmental officers and door supervisors at pubs and nightclubs as well as many other areas. Will your postman wear one to capture your dog barking at him? Will the local corner shop owner have one to pre-empt any robbery or theft?

  • are these people receiving the correct training that the police are?
  • are there policies in place to ensure the data is secure?
  • are there policies to ensure only the authorised people can view what’s been recorded?

Here, I’m positive that there probably aren’t in all cases, so there is work to do here.


And we must not forget drones (unmanned aviation vehicles). Drones are not widely used in the UK for surveillance, but in the past 3 years the cost has plummeted from thousands of pounds to hundreds. That makes them much more accessible and affordable.

A colleague of mine was at a wedding when a drone operated by a photographer (using a hand-held smart phone) started taking photos! And I was watching Manchester City play Tottenham Hotspur at the Etihad stadium last week. A drone appeared hovering several hundred feet above the football pitch and started to record. Did I feel my privacy was invaded – yes I did? Mind you, so was the operator subsequently, as he was arrested by the police for breaching the Civil Aviation Act.

Automatic number plate recognition

I talk about technology being hot-wired into our lives. In the UK, the system of producing paper VEL has been removed. The police now rely on ANPR to identify offences. It’s here forever!

A fine balance

So, you can see that these changes in technology present a difficult balancing act. I return to what I said at the start of this talk – my role is to ensure that surveillance camera systems are used to protect people rather than spy on them.

As kit develops rapidly, are we also rapidly looking for new dangers to protect people from or is it just the new advancements offer better protection? Will the public’s consent towards surveillance wane if :

  • public-space CCTV cameras are fitted with facial recognition
  • drones are used that can take HD quality photos or video from 1km away
  • BWV footage taken of them on a night out isn’t secure and now on YouTube for all to see?

We do need to get that balance right and I believe issues of privacy will come to the fore the more these technologies are used – and communities will challenge its use. I truly believe that we should embrace what these developments offer, but it must be done within the right regulatory framework. A framework that ensures we don’t run before we can walk. We must work with manufacturers, installers and end users so we can use these new systems well with the support of communities.

That is what I am trying to instill in the UK.

Published 18 November 2014