Report from a UK Surveillance Specialist

By Carlton Purvis, Published on Sep 03, 2013

While the US has typically been either favorable or indifferent to video surveillance, the UK is especially well known for its passion, both positive and negative towards video surveillance (or what they call CCTV). To get some local insights, we interviewed Doktor Jon, a UK surveillance industry specialist on the main issues he sees in the UK CCTV industry.  He is currently drafting a set of CCTV Operating Standards he hopes the UK will adopt. We talked with him about UK's video surveillance regulations, its slower shift to IP and why most of its millions of cameras are not fit for purpose. 

Most Cameras Not Fit for Purpose

The majority of deployed cameras are not fit for purpose (even though their operators think they are), Jon says. Why? Because most end users don't determine the operational objectives of surveillance before buying and deploying a system. Because of this, there is rarely any detail or accuracy in defining the intended purpose.

“The majority of cameras may well be considered fit for the owners purpose (typically, "I want to keep an eye on this area", perhaps for site management), but in practice they are often woefully inadequate for the more demanding needs of the law enforcement officer, so may well prove to be completely useless as a vital forensic surveillance tool,” he said.

“The most common problem is probably more to do with a wider lack of practical knowledge, and consequently a general unwillingness by many to pay for even the most basic advice or guidance, which at minimal cost could actually make such a significant difference,” he said.

Making a System Fit for Purpose

There are a few small steps that can have a big impact on making a system more fit for purpose, he says. Often the problem is the wrong camera or lenses for what a person is trying to capture, poor transmission quality, recording a too low of a resolution or too much compression.

An end user can start by creating micro-profiles outlining the specific purpose of each camera within the system. Each camera should be configured on its own based on what is intended to do, or see, to be able to best fill its role in the system.

"In practice, I normally recommend starting with the 'global' profile for the entire site / premises first, then looking at 'macro' profiles for specific areas, and finally 'micro' profiles relating to each individual area under surveillance i.e. usually covered by just a single camera. CCTV System Profiling is simply about taking steps to understand the objectives and then identify what is achievable."

Next they should identify what improvements need to be made to fulfill that purpose. They should look for subtle improvements that can often make a big difference before spending additional money: cleaning housings, changing camera locations adjusting lighting and adjusting compression and resolution settings, for example.

On the other hand, even if users did this, the problem we see is that private owners are not responsible for ensuring that their cameras are 'fit for purpose' for the needs of law enforcement officers. Private cameras make up the majority of surveillance cameras in the UK. 

Jon noted, "Ideally we need to see a change in thinking away from the basic approach of using self serving surveillance, and move towards a more altruistic application of technology that has far wider benefits for a modern security conscious society." Of course, expecting such widespread altruistic implementation of video surveillance seems optimistic.

The UK is Slow to Adopt IP

Jon says the UK is slower at adopting IP because of a “huge historical bedrock of analog systems," austerity and the fact that in more recent years, security professionals have less input on making equipment decisions. 

“It's noticeable how many simple mistakes are often made by personnel who may have very sound technical skills in designing and operating networks, but have little or no practical knowledge on the deeper aspects of criminality and human nature,” he said.

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“Where perhaps a decade or more ago, security managers were tasked with procuring and deploying their own appropriate CCTV systems, nowadays many take a less prominent role in the process, with buying departments doing the actual purchasing and IT departments pushing for network based infrastructure, that they can then bring into their own technical domain.”


“The UK and indeed many other countries are likely to see a reduction in certain categories of video surveillance, whilst the replacement and upgrade of some systems may have to take a back seat, with minor improvements and equipment optimization being the preferred and indeed more affordable short term solution for many,” he said.

Since the 2008 economic crisis, the UK has been one of the hardest hit countries, with growth far lower than the US. Indeed, the UK has suffered two recessions in that time and recently narrowly missed a third.

U.S. Still Working Out Surveillance Problems the UK Worked out in the 80s

Jon says that some American surveillance users are restricted in their approach to applying surveillance for security. 

It appears that operational decisions being made in the U.S. “are somewhat constrained by a lack of useful background information, very similar in fact to some of the situations we saw here in the UK back in the '80s,” he said. Unless there is a more considered approach he says, “many hugely expensive often high profile video surveillance projects may ... prove to be a less than effective application of supposedly cutting edge security technology.

"That said, we are still experiencing numerous issues with the application of video surveillance here in the UK, simply because whilst cutting edge technology can often appear seductive and sexy, the boring old time proven techniques that can actually make all the difference, are somehow not quite so alluring, and consequently rarely get the attention they deserve." 

UK CCTV Regulations Unclear

Doktor Jon says privacy concerns regarding video surveillance have not “been adequately discussed, considered and properly addressed.” The UK Government recently introduced the Protection of Freedoms Act, which contained a section specifically intended to regulate the use of CCTV, but “given the very narrow remit of the legislation, most experts agree that it's impact on publicly operated surveillance is unlikely to affect any more than at most 5 percent of the security cameras currently in use,” he said. The public thought they were getting CCTV regulation but around 95 percent of the UK's cameras currently fall outside the scope of the legislation.

But even within cameras that are regulated, the legislation is not developed enough to avoid confusion. 

Confusion on How the Data Protection Act Applies to CCTV

The UK’s Data Protection Act was originally created to regulate how the government protected individuals’ data, however over time, it is now the primary piece of legislation that addresses video surveillance is regulated. The Data Protection Act is not really about the technology itself, but more specifically about how it's used and what if any personal information is gathered and processed, Jon says.

“As such, it's evolution has seen a fair degree of mission creep, which has inevitably caused some degree of confusion, and a not inconsiderable degree of misinformation in some quarters,” Doktor Jon says.

He recalled two major events regarding the legislation:

For a while, CCTV was often a required part of getting an alcohol license for bars and pubs. But after an outcry from private businesses and privacy activists, the requirement was overruled by the Information Commissioner. Opponents of the requirement argued that it violated the DPA. Businesses that do chose to use CCTV must register with the Information Commissioner’s Offices because collecting recognizable images falls under gathering personal data.

In a recent high profile case, the Information Commissioner's Office used the Data Protection Act to rule one town’s use of ALPR unlawful, saying “blanket vehicle tracking should have no place in a democratic society."

Cameras Can Both Protect and Interfere With Liberties

“For example, in situations relating to 'collateral surveillance' where perhaps a fixed commercial camera may by accident or design oversee part of a pedestrian walkway, setting aside any previous legal rulings about there being no legitimate expectation of privacy in a public place, civil libertarians could argue that such an arrangement impacts on the privacy of those individuals caught walking within the camera's field of view,” Doktor Jon says. However if a person is accused of a crime, that same camera could prove the person was somewhere else during the crime. “So the same camera could be argued to affect an individuals civil liberties, or alternatively uphold their right to freedom, depending on the context,” he said.

Poor Images Not Considered Personal Data

“As it happens, most people don't actually realize that if a camera is incapable of producing images that can be used for recognition purposes, then the lack of any ability to ensure an identification would actually exempt the camera from any requirement to fulfill compliance under the Act,” he said. If you can't identify an individual on a recording because the quality is inadequate, then it cannot be categorized as personal data

Deterrence Effect Wearing Off

In contrast to other generations in the UK, most people 21 and under have grown up in a world where surveillance cameras were always present. The presence of cameras or signage is going to have less of a deterrent effect on these younger parts of the population through a process called “generational habituation.”

As people get used to having cameras around the deterrent effect will gradually diminish, which is a process that Jon describes as "temporal habituation". However, where they are seen to be effective and this success is publicized, it can create a situation where some crimes are forced down by a technique called "Deterrence through Detection". “The more positive the message about CCTV success, the easier it becomes to uphold a useful deterrent effect and hopefully smother the potential for further general criminality,” Jon says.

CCTV Helps Criminals Get Away

With the growth of CCTV and the reliance on video evidence, there has been an increase in prosecutions that fail or get thrown out of court for footage related discrepancies, he says. “The main problems relate to fundamental failures in the way that CCTV recordings are initially gathered and processed for admission into legal proceedings, and also the quality of the recordings overall,” he notes. He says this is one of the most important reasons there needs to be CCTV standards.

Specific laws for CCTV needed

Jon said ideally there needs to be comprehensive legislation that covers designing systems, product selection and performance compliance, installation and deployment, wider personnel licensing, managing recordings that “serves the needs of all stakeholders ... but there seems little prospect of that in the foreseeable future.” He said he is currently drafting a series of CCTV Operational Standards that will be released in the “near future.” 

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