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New camera commissioner could cause confusion, says privacy watchdog

The Information Commissioner has warned that new plans for a Surveillance Camera Commissioner could result in confusion and conflicting regulation.03 Mar 2011

The Government has proposed a new code of practice on the use of CCTV networks and traffic-monitoring automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) systems. The code will establish a new watchdog to ensure that it is followed, the Surveillance Camera Commissioner.

The code was proposed by the Government's Freedom Bill. In its evidence on that Bill to the Public Bill Committee, data protection regulator the Information Commissioner said that the appointment of another commissioner with some of the same duties as him could cause damaging confusion.

"It will be important to clarify the roles of the respective commissioners because, as the Bill stands, there will be overlaps in their responsibilities running the risk that commissioners may adopt differing interpretive approaches and guidance on each others statutory provisions," said the Information Commissioner's evidence (9-page / 128KB PDF), as published by data protection training consultancy Amberhawk.

"In order to have an effective, transparent and consistent regulatory framework, it is essential that all the commissioners who have a role in overseeing camera surveillance have clear and complementary roles. Otherwise there is a risk that regulation becomes fragmentary, confusing and contradictory, especially if commissioners take different approaches," said the evidence.

The consultation on the code recognised that the two roles will cover some of the same ground.

"There is no intention for the new Code, or the role of the new Surveillance Camera Commissioner, to cut across the existing role of the Information Commissioner," it said. "There will, however, be a strong overlap of areas of interest and it is intended, and essential, that the respective Commissioners will work closely together to ensure that any issues that arise are properly addressed."

The code will only apply to local authorities and police forces, which the Information Commissioner said was also a cause for concern.

"This could cause problems in practice given the many partnership arrangements between the public and private sectors for town centre monitoring," said the Information Commissioner's evidence. "There is also widespread use of CCTV and ANPR systems across all sectors including government agencies and increasing deployment of ANPR in the private sector such as with car park operation, where sometimes details of people’s vehicle movements are stored indefinitely and insufficient safeguards are in place regarding security, access and further use."

"The Information Commissioner considers further thought should be given to the implications of limiting the application of the code to the police and local government only," it said.

The code has proposed that the operators of systems justify the need for them before putting them in place. They must run through a checklist before installing systems to ensure that the system is necessary and being used in the right way, the Government's proposal said.

"Anyone considering the use of [surveillance cameras] should first undertake a thorough assessment of the purpose, likely value, and wider impact of such a course of action and determine in the light of that whether or not to proceed," said a Home Office consultation on the proposed code (26-page / 254KB PDF).

The consultation said that, when finished, the code should contain guidance on how long operators can keep information gathered through surveillance systems for. It said that this would be especially needed for ANPR systems.

The code will offer an opportunity for the operators and subjects of surveillance to better understand the law, privacy law expert William Malcolm of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, said.

"Operators of ANPR systems and car drivers alike will welcome this consultation as an opportunity to have existing law clarified and to enhance best practice," he said. "The use of ANPR systems has increased in recent years and any steps to make standards more uniform and to increase public knowledge about their use and benefits is to be welcomed."

Pinsent Masons and AmberhawkTraining will be running a data protection law update session on 11 April. Details and booking information (4-page / 164KB PDF)