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Sampson warns of government plans to abolish Surveillance Camera Commissioner

The Government is proposing to abolish the position of Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner (BSCC), a post which was created under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 and which has produced the nationally-recognised Surveillance Camera Code of Practice.

According to a consultation document from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the government appears to be proposing to subsume the function of the BSCC into the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

The current BSCC, Fraser Sampson, is clearly alarmed at the idea and has written about his concerns on his government blog: What we talk about when we talk about biometrics…*

It’s long and goes deep into the weeds, as one might expect from a lawyer, but Fraser’s blog argues that the BSCC is not a regulator and therefore it would not sit well within the ICO regulatory framework.

The BSCC is of course an amalgamation of two roles that were originally created as separate jobs: the Biometrics Commissioner and the Surveillance Camera Commissioner. In the CCTV industry, we worked closely with Sampson’s predecessor Tony Porter and before him Andrew Rennison. Andrew introduced the Code of Practice and its 12 principles and Tony did a huge amount of work promoting and applying the Code across the industry.

Because there are two roles in one, Sampson addresses each one separately. Talking about biometrics, he points out that his role as commissioner is a quasi-judicial function that takes decisions on the retention of biometric data by the police in situations where they would normally be required to dispose of it. This quasi-judicial function, he argues, is at odds with the regulatory function of the ICO. That’s quite clear-cut.

On surveillance, the case for maintaining the commissioner in its current form outside of the ICO is not so clear, unfortunately, because the role of the Surveillance Camera Commissioner is not quasi-judicial – more like quasi-regulatory.

There is a danger that the current guidance on the use of surveillance camera technology would be lost within the ICO and we would lose that focal point of a dedicated commissioner to spread the gospel, as it were, about the 12 principles.

As it stands now, our Surveillance Camera Commissioner, as part of the BSCC, gives us:

  • Challenge to the police use of facial recognition technology and AI

  • Specific and actionable guidance for surveillance camera operators

Part of the confusion in this discussion is the growing overlap between biometrics and surveillance cameras. While we tend to focus our attention on facial recognition, there are other crossovers between surveillance cameras and biometrics including gait analysis (the measurement of your unique pattern of walking), audio analysis (not to be confused with recording and analysing speech but rather the analysis of unusual sounds like gunshots, screams and road traffic accidents) and behavioural analysis linked to predictive algorithms.

Of course, it could do so much more and provide guidance for the police on other forms of surveillance, too, like cell-site simulators (Stingrays), x-ray vans and open-source intelligence such as social media.

This is all part of what Fraser refers to as the “ecosystem of biometrics and surveillance”. Wrapping all of this into the ICO would be simplistic and unimaginative, he argues – in his words, “the wrong answer to the wrong question”.

Unfortunately, none of this appears to have made it into the consultation. While it ought to provide a “once-in-this-generation opportunity”, as Fraser says, to debate what we mean by accountable surveillance, the question of subsuming the BSCC into the ICO is relegated to a short question at the back of the consultation document.

Question is, is it a done deal or is there a chance to argue the case for retaining our Surveillance Camera Commissioner and, dare we dream, even giving him a bit more power?

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