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IP Cameras – Urban Saviours or Civic Threats?

Manned surveillance stationAre you concerned by private companies and the state spying on our every move?

Do you fear our public places are becoming swamped with CCTV devices?

Or are you more interested in making sure people who commit crimes in our streets get caught; that the best video surveillance evidence can be used against them and they are prosecuted accordingly?

There has been a flurry of recent articles and features concerned with the way extraordinary developments in IP cameras mean that not only does it get easier to observe, identify and provide evidence, but that placed in the wrong hands, our privacy may be invaded.

New Technologies, New Rules

Over recent years, there may be fewer ‘bobbies on the beat’, but the high tech eyes on our streets are certainly giving some communities the protection they demand.

There has been a massive shift from the use of ancient analogue cameras to new High Definition (HD) digital IP cameras. These new tools are now so high resolution that they can pick out a face in a crowd from a camera which may be half a mile away (though this capability comes at a price).

But CCTV is not the only piece of tech undergoing rapid evolution. The boom in digital technology has meant that audio analysis, biometrics and behavioural analysis are also getting extremely high tech these days. They can now help identify miscreants with technologies like biometrics, facial recognition, facial comparison and gait analysis with relative ease.

For example, in the biometrics field, the India UIDAI project is looking to allow businesses to use the central biometric database to authenticate people for private transactions.

In the fight against the rising tide of crime, a whole range of “CSI” level technology is being used across the globe to help forensic scientists, police forces and community groups deter, detect and provide clear evidence for prosecution.

However, much like the development of the telephone, or the wheel for that matter, for each leap forward in technology, society has to make great changes to accommodate as well as take advantage of the new opportunities.

What we must remember is that regulation and the law do not always keep up with the pace of change in the areas they oversee. Just look at social media. The law, certainly in the UK, regarding libel, slander and threatening behaviour is constantly under pressure from activists pushing its boundaries online, but also from ordinary citizens writing on impulse via this new public platform of expression.

Surveillance Commissioner Concerns

In recognition that society has to catch up with technological developments, the newly appointed Surveillance Commissioner said that “the technology has overtaken our ability to regulate it.”

“It is the Big Brother scenario playing out large. I’m convinced that if we don’t regulate it properly – i.e. the technological ability to use millions of images we capture – there will be a huge public backlash.”

The new UK Surveillance Commissioner, Andrew Rennison was appointed in September 2012 after being temporarily in post for quite some time. He has to play a very fine balancing act indeed.

On the one hand, he must meet the demands of the police, the lawyers and at-risk communities that require more accurate reporting of crimes via high tech video surveillance, and on the other hand, civil rights groups fearing privacy invasion.

Many of these civil liberties groups are concerned that the developments in video surveillance infringe our United Nations Article 8 protection on private and family rights. Civil liberty groups like Big Brother Watch are also worried that the information received via video surveillance might be put into the wrong hands.

The post of Surveillance Commissioner is relatively new and we at NW Systems look forward to the discussions and concerns that will naturally arise in the industry. To that end, we stand ready to work with the Surveillance Commissioner to discuss any technical issues that may arise from any new advances in the sector.

Essentially, with each new technological development in the field of surveillance, arises the inevitable question of ‘who watches the watchmen’, and what are they doing with all the information they are gathering?

Incidentally, this was a known phenomenon even in Roman times and termed ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’

Plus ça change, eh?

A Hydra-Headed Dilemma

Many commentators state a whole host of reasons to explain why there has been such a huge growth in video surveillance systems across the country.

In many ways, it’s a push and pull, hydra-headed dilemma:

  • Police authorities wish to cut budgets by taking ‘bobbies off the beat.’ They want to make those officers that still walk the beat more effective, so turn to CCTV video surveillance.
  • The state would like to prevent terrorism and observe all suspicious activities
  • Local communities that suffer from high levels of crime (whether rich or poor) demand a better deterrent, detection and clear-up rate in prosecutions
  • Individuals and groups claim that if the cameras are in public places then nobody’s privacy is being infringed
  • Security staff need to be supported with top of the range equipment to protect people and assets
  • The law and forensic science require images captured on IP cameras to be ever more clear in order to provide conclusive evidence

What is sure however, is that NW Systems Group also wishes to support any useful discussions on the issues of the appropriate use of public spaces and privacy issues.

It is our contention that the new IP cameras, and in fact all new tech is best used in collaboration with the communities it serves and that it should support – not replace – front-line operators in making our cities and streets safer places for generations to come.

More To Follow

One more thing is for sure, the issue of video surveillance and privacy rights will not be going away any time soon. Accordingly, we will be covering the topic, with all its various angles, on this blog in the weeks and months to come.

We welcome all useful comments and insights you may have on the issue.

Dive into the Comments section and let’s start the debate on how to make sure our cities and citizens get the protection they deserve, but not by trampling the privacy rights of others.

And let’s make it a little more interesting, shall we?

Would even better technological support have provided a clearer result in the “Plebgate” confrontation between the ousted government whip, Andrew Mitchell and the police evidence? For example, would a digital audio analysis from the CCTV camera in the case have provided more conclusive proof one way or another?

I’m looking forward to reading your views.

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Published on January 7th, 2013 by Kevin Bowyer

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