Ensuring transparency and responsibility in surveillance camera use

Creating a National Surveillance Camera Strategy was crucial to making sure surveillance cameras are used responsibly and with transparency. One Stirling academic has conducted over 20 years of research, which has been pivotal to the creation of the strategy.

illustration of CCTV cameras

Our research

Professor William Webster, a world leading authority on the governance of surveillance cameras, formed the Centre for Research into Information, Surveillance and Privacy (CRISP) in 2012, and has led a variety of research initiatives exploring the consequences and impacts of technologically mediated surveillance on services and society.

His work on surveillance cameras has been vital in the creation of the Surveillance Camera Commissioner’s (SCC) landmark National Surveillance Camera Strategy for England and Wales.

This world-first strategy lays out how all public surveillance cameras in England and Wales should be managed and used.

The need for a national strategy

Professor Webster’s research argues that it is important for appropriate governance and management mechanisms to be put in place for new forms of digital surveillance to ensure that they are delivered in the public interest.

Professor Webster, Chair of Public Policy and Management, in the Stirling Management School, explained: “Surveillance is powerful and shapes human relations, particularly between the surveyors and the surveilled – and in the case of surveillance cameras this would be citizen-state relations.

“Healthy public discussion around how and why they are used is also essential for effective governance of surveillance cameras, to ensure public trust and support. Therefore, there must be transparency around the purpose, design and usage of the systems.”

The need for a national strategy has become increasingly important as new digital forms of surveillance have been developed, and as these technologies evolve to include automated processes like automatic face recognition.

Professor Webster continued: “New forms of surveillance, such as automated facial recognition, Smart CCTV and body-worn video cameras, often have data processes that are mostly invisible to people being surveyed. Therefore, it’s crucial that there’s also guidance around the best practice and ethical use of all manner of surveillance cameras.”

"Healthy public discussion around how and why they are used is also essential for effective governance of surveillance cameras, to ensure public trust and support."

Professor William Webster, Chair of Public Policy and Management, Stirling Management School

Governing surveillance camera use

The National Surveillance Camera Strategy for England and Wales, launched in March 2017, governs the use and management of public space surveillance cameras, provides oversight of surveillance camera use, sets out the principles of use, and determines how cameras are managed and used.

The National Strategy covers more than 600 public authorities and a larger number of private and commercial organisations, including private security firms and national retailers.

Tony Gleason, Chair of the Public CCTV Managers Association and local authority lead on the SCC’s National Surveillance Camera Strategy expert working group, said: “The Strategy has been invaluable to local authorities, guiding our responsible development and deployment of new and existing camera systems.”

All public space surveillance camera systems in England and Wales now demonstrate appropriate managerial control, public support and trust in their existence and operation.

Authorities must legally follow the principles and practices laid out in the strategy. This makes sure that providers are following the best practice and operate with appropriate governance structures in place.

The National Strategy has also had a major impact on public policy and the delivery of services in a number of public policy arenas, including the police use of surveillance cameras. Here there have been changes to both procedures and training, including those relating to public engagement.

The National Strategy - informed by Stirling research - covers more than 600 public authorities and a larger number of private and commercial organisations, including private security firms and national retailers.

CCTV camera

Public awareness and transparency

The National Strategy’s success continues to depend on surveillance camera operators engaging with the public about their use of surveillance. One of the SCC’s key objectives for the strategy was to “make information freely available to the public about the operation of surveillance camera systems”.

Professor Webster’s research was vital to making sure engagement between CCTV users and the public was a key part of the strategy. He led the ‘civic engagement’ strand of the strategy to make sure public awareness and transparency were core principles.

As part of the programme, Webster organised and hosted a consultation event on the National Strategy in London and a public ‘Question Time’ event on the Future of Surveillance Cameras.

Professor Webster added: “The civic engagement strand of the strategy was crucial to ensuring that the public are aware of surveillance camera usage and that there is discourse around how they are used.

“Transparency around their usage is particularly important at a time where new technologies are becoming more common and their capabilities aren’t generally well understood by the public at large.”

Professor Webster also invented and lead the world’s first Surveillance Camera Day, which took place in June 2019.

The event raised public awareness about surveillance camera usage and was covered in The Times, The Telegraph, BBC 2’s The Politics Show, Radio 5’s Live breakfast show, as well as generating 95,000 impressions on Twitter. Webster also wrote an article in The Conversation, which received more than 80,000 hits. One aspect of the Surveillance Camera Day was a ‘doors open’ initiative whereby members of the public were welcomed into CCTV control centres to see how they were used.

The day was hailed as a “huge success” by Tony Porter, Surveillance Camera Commissioner, and generated a national conversation about surveillance cameras. The event also emphasised the need for local authorities and police forces to be open and transparent about surveillance camera usage.

Webster also organised an expert panel of the CPDP (Computers, Privacy and Data Protection) Conference in Brussels in January 2020 on the governance of face recognition surveillance cameras, extending policy discussions to a wider group of international stakeholders.

The world’s first Surveillance Camera Day - created by Professor Webster - generated a national conversation about surveillance cameras and was covered in The Times, The Telegraph, on BBC 2 and Radio 5 Live.

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Related publications

Surveillance cameras will soon be unrecognisable - time for an urgent public conversation

Webster W (2019) Surveillance cameras will soon be unrecognisable - time for an urgent public conversation. The Conversation. 18.06.2019.

The rise of body-worn video cameras: A new surveillance revolution?

Webster, C.W.R. and Leleux, C. The rise of body-worn video cameras: A new surveillance revolution? In: Clayton Newell, B. (eds.) Police on Camera: Surveillance, Privacy, and Accountability. Routledge Studies in Surveillance. Routledge, 2020. 

Surveillance and Democracy in Europe

Ball, K. and Webster, C.W.R. (eds.). Surveillance and Democracy in Europe. Routledge Studies in Surveillance, Routledge. Hardback published in 2019, paperback in 2020. 

Video Surveillance: Practices and Policies in Europe

Webster, C.W.R., T?pfer, E., Klauser, F. and Raab, C.D. (eds.) Video Surveillance: Practices and Policies in Europe. Innovation in the Public Sector Series, Vol.18, IOS Press, 2012. 

Surveillance as X-ray

Webster, C.W.R. Surveillance as X-ray, Information Polity, Vol.17, No3-4, pp.251-265, 2012. 

CCTV policy in the UK: Reconsidering the evidence base

Webster, C.W.R. CCTV policy in the UK: Reconsidering the evidence base’, Surveillance and Society, Vol.6, No.1, pp.10-22, 2009. 

Living in surveillance societies: The normalisation of surveillance in Europe and the threat of Britain's bad example

Murakami Wood, D. and Webster, C.W.R. Living in surveillance societies: The normalisation of surveillance in Europe and the threat of Britain's bad example, Journal of Contemporary European Research, Vol.5, No.2, pp.259-273, 2009.

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