International Video Surveillance Laws / Regulations

By John Honovich, Published Jul 17, 2010, 08:00pm EDT

In this note, we examine laws and regulations for video surveillance developed by a variety of countries including references to documentation and details on these approaches.

US vs Europe/UK

In our current review, we found a key element in evaluating a country's legal stance on video surveillance to be their position on privacy expectation. For instance, in the US, a common refrain is "one cannot have an expectation of privacy in public places" (see Wikipedia entry). However, this is far from universal, with many countries, especially in Europe and in the UK Commonwealth. An important example is the European Union's Data Protection Directive that emphasizes the need for transparency and evaluating the proportionality of privacy infringing measures such as video surveillance.

European Laws

European laws towards video surveillance generally require posting signs of surveilled areas (ensuring transparency), review by a privacy commission and sometimes approval by a government organization before deployment. Two good surveys of European country positioning on video surveillance regulation come from the BBC and Surveillance & Society Journal [link no longer available]. Additionally, systems can be shut down in some countries if it is found that the surveillance system is excessive relative to the goal desired (principle of proportionality). A good example of shutting down systems can be found in a study of Canada's laws on video surveillance (see report [link no longer available], starting on page 32, where they note, "By far the most legally challenged privacy-affecting technology in Canada is CCTV").

UK Laws

The UK is the most often cited country with regards to CCTV regulation. The UK has a Code of Practice for CCTV [link no longer available] based on the Data Protection Act, that if not met can result in a criminal conviction. Especially noteworthy elements of this code include requiring organizations to register their systems and to allow any person to request access to video of themselves on an organization's systems (maximum ~$15 fee can be charged). Additionally, the UK requires security guards and surveillance operators to have government licensing (see the SIA licensing handbook for details). Obtaining a license requires a background check, 20+ hours of coursework, ~$400 application fee and passing of an exam. One strange point is that convicts with multiple year prison sentences can become licensed security or CCTV operators (covered in great detail in the criminal record section of the appliation guide). On the other hand, significant debate exists on enforcing such laws in the UK (see I4S discussion).

US Laws

In the US, outside of spying in homes or bathrooms (so called 'Peeping Tom' laws), minimal regulation or case law exists to limit video surveillance. The most informative government examination of surveillance comes from a 2007 review by the Department of Homeland Security. Their position is to encourage 'best practices' similar to what is done in Europe. However, the DHS is clear that these are aspirational rather than regulatory. In general, unless the use of surveillance is considered a 'search' (a Fourth Ammendment violation), surveillance will be found to be legal. US Courts have found that surveillance using publicly available technology or that which is similar to what the human eye can see is not a violation. Privacy advocates have argued that video surveillance can be a First Amendment violation (creating a chilling effect on free speech as people fear monitoring their protests, etc.) However, this has never been upheld in any cases. See our review of US law and search standards for video surveillance.

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