Frightening Surveillance Misuse - Spying on Women

By: John Honovich, Published on Mar 15, 2011

Perhaps the most frightening misuse of video surveillance is guards using the system to spy on and harass women. Making this even more despicable would be doing this in a children's museum. Unfortunately, this is exactly what is being alleged against a UK organization. In this note, we examine the case, the issues involved and what can be done to prevent or stop this in other surveillance systems.

Let's start with a review of this case:

  • It occured in a Children's Science Museum in Edinburgh named the Dynamic Earth
  • A security guard is acused of misuing the CCTV system
  • He allegedly "trained the cameras on members of the public milling about outside, in one case saving footage of two girls kissing to show to colleagues"
  • A cleaning lady is accusing him of tracking her using the cameras: "One time I was dancing around while I was polishing and he came on the radio saying he liked how I shook my bum, and told me to move my body more."
  • Apparently CCTV of the relevant footage is no longer available

Over the years, from time to time, we have heard stores of men using CCTV to spy on women. However, this is the most seriously and systemtic misuse allegations we have seen. We find it to be a fairly devestating accusation.

Technology to Prevent?

Unfortunately, there's not much technology that can prevent this. It is hard, if not impossible, to track what cameras an operator is looking at. Even if a system had an audit trail of cameras an operator viewed, determining whether the guard was doing so maliciously would be extremely difficult and time consuming (e.g., was the guard simply scanning through cameras or was he spying on someone).

On the specific claim about exporting CCTV videos, perhaps the organization could have restricted rights to exporting video, though not all systems support that and the guard might have had a legitimate need to export video.

Perhaps the only step that might significantly hinder such illicit behavior is blurring individual's faces by default. A few companies, over the years, including 3VR and IBM have proposed this. However, this feature has never really become popular and is hard to find in real world surveillance systems. Additionally, if it was used, the other important risk would be how this hurt legitimate use of surveillance systems - would operators miss events or items of interest, etc.?

As for the missing video, while the standard recording duration is not cited, this is not suprising as most surveillance video tends to be erased / recorded over within a month. Keeping significantly longer video recording may help but long term recording poses its own privacy risks.

Organizational Procedures

Ultimately, we think this is inherently hard to prevent. The best bet is to strengthen organizational procedures around using surveillance video.

In the articles we have reviewed, no mention is made about the screening process of the guard. The UK has licensing requirements that includes background checks. However, we do not know if this was done.

Ultimately, though, male security guards using cameras to spy on women will not be limited to those individuals with a criminal record. Screening can only do so much, especially with so many security guards being young men.

In our experience, these events tend to proliferate when management is lax with setting expectations and punishing those who misuse the surveillance system. It is often ignored as being funny or a 'guy' thing ('boys being boys'). For example, if the organization promptly responded, would the CCTV videos still be available?

The ethical problems are clear and the negative consequences can be severe. While technology options offer minimal safeguards, security managers must make a strong, clear, regulard stand against such misuse.

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