Crappy Cameras Trigger City Surveillance Shutdown

By Carlton Purvis, Published May 14, 2013, 12:00am EDT

An Australian city has shut off its surveillance system after being ordered to determine how to operate its cameras without violating privacy laws. The order was passed down months after a case brought by one of its residents who argued the city had no surveillance authority and violated laws by improperly collecting personal information, including that the image quality was so poor it was impossible for the city to collect accurate depictions. A tribunal decided in the resident’s favor. In this note, we review the case.

Last Thursday, the City of Shoalhaven, in New South Wales, turned off 18 surveillance cameras in its downtown business district after being ordered by an Administrative Decisions Tribunal (ADT). The tribunal’s decision is the result of a complaint filed by Shoalhaven resident Adam Bonner. 

Bonner asserted that the city cannot prevent crime with surveillance cameras, had no authority to collect personal information and improperly notified the public that it would be collecting images. One of the more damaging assertions though was that the city’s camera images were too poor to use for evidence or crime prevention.

UPDATE: Shoalhaven has turned it's cameras back on. Full update at the bottom of this post. 

Crime Prevention and Image Quality

Shoalhaven’s lawyers say the cameras, which went online in 2009, were collecting information as part of the city’s crime prevention strategy, according to tribunal records. Additionally, after a crime happens, the council said it provides police with images. 

The complainant argued that poor image quality made cameras ineffective for both crime prevention or investigations. Bonner says the camera quality was so poor that anyone watching live would not be able to make out facial features of anyone farther than five meters and such poor quality video was of little value to an investigation after a crime is committed. Out of 25 incidents, in only one case was the victim identifiable using camera images. In that case both the victim and the offender were already “well known to the police.” Note: no sample images were made available online with the case file. 

In his argument, Bonner noted that the town went against its own specifications for PTZ cameras and bought fixed cameras using digital zoom (see our Digital Zoom Tutorial) on the advice of a provider who bid on the project (and won). 

The tribunal agreed, saying the blurry images were “inaccurate and incomplete" representations, which violate the requirement to collect accurate information. It also said the images did not provide any meaningful assistance to law enforcement. 

Further, expert witnesses testified, that “personal information is not reasonably necessary for the purpose of assisting with crime prevention” and that “public CCTV, particularly in cities and town centres, has a statistically insignificant effect on crime reduction.” Crime data for the area showed that crime has actually increased since the 2009 camera installation. Of course, many factors can contribute to crime shifts beyond cameras, both positive and negative.

Other Arguments 

The complainant also argued the city was not eligible for law enforcement privacy exemptions that allow collection of personal information. Police could get access to recorded video, but did not operate the system.

As for signage and notification, the tribunal said signage placed on the perimeter of the business district was “sufficient to inform a majority of individuals that the cameras are in operation and, by implication, that personal information is being collected" but not "sufficient to inform individuals of the purposes for which the information is being collected.”  

The Tribunal ordered the city to “refrain from any conduct or action in contravention of an information protection principle or a privacy code of practice” so they turned the cameras off for now.

Local Impact

Locally, this case is likely to have an impact more on how cameras are used, not if they are. According to the tribunal, cameras cannot prevent crimes from happening so the Shoalhaven’s crime prevention argument was a nonstarter. Additionally, Shoalhaven erred by assuming it was exempt from privacy laws because it was providing video to the police. Police are exempt from personal information privacy laws, cities are not. Cities have to be clear why they are collecting images. In this case, the tribunal found the images were not much help to the police anyway, only providing evidence in one of 25 sample cases. In the wake of this case, however, both city and state officials have implied state legislation is forthcoming that would allow cities to install cameras for law enforcement purposes.

Overall Impact

We do not believe this will have much overall impact. First, it appears this city simply made a mistake by using low resolution fixed cameras instead of PTZs or multi-megapixel ones that would facilitate covering greater areas. Secondly, stringent privacy laws are only applicable to a handful of countries (mostly UK Commonwealth and Europe - see our International Surveillance Law Review).

UPDATE: In a matter of days, NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell announced new regulations that exempt cities from parts of the privacy act, giving them CCTV powers similar to those of law enforcement. Cities are now allowed to collect personal information using CCTV and the cameras in Shoalhaven will be turned back on by Friday afternoon, the Illawarra Mercury reports.

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