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Report finds 'worrying vacuum' in surveillance camera plans

An independent study warns that the plan to abolish biometrics and surveillance safeguards will leave the UK without oversight.

A new report points to a ‘worrying vacuum’ in government plans to safeguard the public in relation to biometrics and surveillance.

The authors of the independent study warn that plans to abolish and not replace existing safeguards in this crucial area will leave the UK without proper oversight just when advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and other technologies mean they are needed more than ever.

The report by the Centre for Research into Information Surveillance and Privacy (CRISP) analyses the likely effect of abolishing the roles of the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner (BSCC) and the requirement for the government to publish a surveillance camera code of practice.

At the moment the BSCC is responsible for overseeing police use of DNA and fingerprints in England and Wales (and in Scotland and Northern Ireland for national security purposes), and for encouraging the proper use of public space surveillance cameras. But both roles will be revoked if, as expected, the government’s Data Protection and Digital Information Bill becomes law in Spring 2024.

The 67-page report, commissioned by the BSCC after discussions with the Home Office, recognises that the government has made arrangements for the transfer and continuation of the BSCC’s quasi-judicial functions in relation to deciding police applications to retain DNA profiles and fingerprints of people arrested but not convicted of serious crimes, and of reviewing National Security Determinations (NSDs) which allow police to keep biometrics on national security grounds.

However, the report also identifies significant areas where the government has made no specific plans to retain other BSCC oversight functions, including:

  • reviewing police handling of DNA samples, DNA profiles and fingerprints

  • maintaining an up-to-date surveillance camera code of practice with standards and guidance for practitioners and encouraging compliance with that code

  • setting out technical and governance matters for most public body surveillance systems including how to approach evolving technology including AI-driven systems such as facial recognition technology

  • providing guidance on technical and procurement matters to ensure that future surveillance systems are of the right standard and purchased from reliable suppliers

  • providing reports to the Home Secretary and Parliament about public surveillance and biometrics matters

The loss of the surveillance camera code is identified as a particularly retrograde step with research for the report showing that the code is widely valued and respected among security and surveillance practitioners.

Among the industry experts consulted, Alex Carmichael, from the Security Systems and Alarms Inspection Board, said:

Without the Surveillance Camera Commissioner you will go back to the old days when it was like the ‘wild west’, which means you can do anything with surveillance cameras so long as you don’t annoy the Information Commissioner…so, there will not be anyone looking at new emerging technologies, looking at their technical requirements or impacts, no one thinking about ethical implications for emerging technologies like face-recognition, it will be a free-for-all.

Copyright: GOV.UK

Read the full press release here

Read the BSCC's Report here

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