Context and CCTV

The Information Commissioner has published fresh guidance about acceptable use of CCTV cameras. The most notable part of this is a recommended ban on microphones to record conversations. Why is this such a big deal?

It’s no secret that the UK is the most surveilled nation in the world – 4.5m cameras capture us each up to 300 times a day. There are many examples where that’s no bad thing, so long as the use is carefully controlled. CCTV has facilitated the detection and investigation of every type of crime. But there’s also ‘bad’ use of CCTV, and that’s where the use of cameras is excessive (too many cameras), disproportionate (cameras where they’re simply not needed) or out of context, and it’s audio recording that causes the biggest contextual problem.

I have no problem with being filmed as I walk down the street chatting with a friend, minding my own business and obeying the law. All that the CCTV operator sees is us being law-abiding passer-by. Introduce a microphone to the equation, and the context changes completely – I might be discussing my financial affairs, my health, my wife’s health or what I think about a business colleague, and the operator gains a heap of sensitive information that is entirely irrelevant to the purpose of the CCTV system. This is a clear breach of the Data Protection Act, and the Information Commissioner is quite right to come down hard on it.

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