In ‘vest’ing in crime fighting technology – accountability versus privacy rights?

What impact is wearable technology likely to have on police safety and effective crime fighting? Conversely, what’s the impact on police accountability and reliability of evidence?

This initiative would further increase the scope of surveillance in the UK. Already, we have one of the highest rates of CCTV cameras by population in the world. A 2013 survey estimated that there could be up to 5.9 million surveillance cameras in the UK, one for every 11 people.

Wearable technology may be even more intrusive than CCTV, capturing up-close visuals and audio recordings which, in the case of the police, could be of victims and perpetrators involved in violent and graphic crimes.

While it’s important to make policing more transparent and accountable, we need to make sure that we don’t over-rely on technology to achieve this. Change must also come through wider policies and attempts to change cultural working practices.

Similarly, the effectiveness of surveillance as a crime prevention measure should not be over-stated and may not always be justified by the cost. Other more low-tech measures – such as better street lighting – may be more effective in preventing crime.

Although video recordings may provide useful evidence that can help to secure convictions, as with other kinds of evidence, they can also be misleading if presented without relevant context. If cameras are on all the time, the police are effectively filming the public on a continual basis regardless of whether they are involved in a crime. In terms of making sure the police are accountable, it is less likely that police abuses would happen in public places. But, it might be preferable to have cameras in police vehicles – where there have been accusations of abuse and where it is less likely that bystanders will be filmed – in the same way that there are cameras in police stations.

Issues may arise on how audio-visual materials are used and how long they are kept for, particularly when the police are filming members of the public not involved in criminal activity.

Arguably there may be benefits to the police wearing cameras at demonstrations. Protesters may feel that this might deter heavy handed dispersal tactics by the police or provide evidence of them if they occur. Conversely, police officers may feel that they have evidence to counter any claims of police brutality or provide evidence of provocation. But cameras would also give the police a visual record of everyone who attended a particular demonstration. How might that footage be used afterwards? Could facial recognition software be used to identify people to keep a note for future demonstrations or investigations?

Won’t it just be possible to turn the camera off (in the same way as a recording can be stopped)?

If it is possible to turn a camera off, there would need to be mechanisms within the camera to keep a proper audit of when it has been switched on and off, and why.

Continual recording would mean that all of a police officer’s daily activities would be recorded and they would be fully accountable for their actions. But it would also mean that many members of the public, not involved in crimes, would be captured on film and this would be an unnecessary intrusion on their privacy. In addition, there are times when police officers have to use their discretion. If they were wearing cameras, they might feel obliged to pursue minor infractions, which they might deal with differently otherwise.

Conversely, selective recording could lead to accusations that video footage is misleading, has been taken out of context, or deliberately manipulated to secure a conviction.

Does the use of such technology present any challenges to current criminal law and police practice?

The use of CCTV by public authorities is regulated under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 (PFA 2012). The Surveillance Camera Code of Practice pursuant to PFA 2012 provides guidance to public authorities.This guidance acknowledges that, “there may be additional standards applicable where the system has specific advanced capability… for example the use of body-worn video recorders”. However, it does not give much detail about what these standards are.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has published more detailed guidance, which spell out further what these mean – In the picture: A data protection code of practice for surveillance cameras and personal information‘. This recognises the threats to privacy:

“BWV [body-worn video] systems are likely to be more intrusive than the more “normal” CCTV style surveillance systems because of its mobility. Before you decide to procure and deploy such a system, it is important that you justify its use and consider whether or not it is proportionate, necessary and addresses a pressing social need.”

It also outlines the data protection issues and offers guidance that data should be stored, “in a way that remains under your sole control, retains the quality of the original recording and is adequate for the purpose for which it was originally collected”.

What are the potential human rights or privacy implications for individuals?

The police spend a lot of time talking to victims, witnesses and other members of the public, not just apprehending criminals. By wearing a camera they could essentially be continuously filming in public places and this has privacy implications for everyone in those places. The government’s guidance says, “people in public places should normally be made aware whenever they are being monitored by a surveillance camera system” but it is difficult to see how this could work in practice if the camera is being worn by an officer.

Given the appetite for footage of real criminals being arrested, there are also risks of videos being leaked, hacked or shared inappropriately and this is likely to breach rights of privacy.

What measures would police need to take to ensure that their use of such technology complies with data protection laws?

The police have broad powers to hold and process data, and there are a number of data protection opt-outs available to them. If they are to record and keep video footage, they must have systems in place that store audio-visual material securely. There also need to be strict controls over who can access it. The guidance from the ICO outlines these requirements clearly. However, it is not only data protection law but also the Human Rights Act 1998 that the police must comply with.

This article was first published by Lexis®PSL IP & IT on 17 November 2014.