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Kirstie Ball on surveillance

CCTV, body-worn cameras … drones … social media … surveillance is taking to the skies and attaching itself to our bodies. What are the implications for security managers, as users of surveillance? We spoke to Prof Kirstie Ball of the Open University, pictured, a researcher in this field.

She’s a member of a working group that’s helping Tony Porter the Surveillance Camera Commissioner on a revision of his surveillance camera code of practice. Readers who attended the ST14 Heathrow and ST15 Newcastle conference and heard Tony Porter speak will know that drones are on his radar (pardon any pun). As Kirstie Ball sets out, drones don’t fit easily into the guiding principles and data protection law covering surveillance. If a drone has a camera, how do you (the drone-user or owner) give proper notice that the camera’s in use? How do you tell those under surveillance where they can contact the data controller? Drones are becoming ever cheaper and easier to use, and that includes irresponsible use (we can think here of documented cases of drones buzzing football stadia, or tourist attractions. While it might be a joke, or at worst a nuisance, the object poses a risk if it crashes, accidentally or on purpose.).

There’s Michael McIntyre!?
But back to Kirstie. She gives the recent case of the Metropolitan Police putting an image of Michael McIntyre on social media, the comedian having been spotted by a Met helicopter in Leicester Square one morning. It prompted online anger and the image was taken offline. As she says, the case in many ways shows police had the best of intentions – showing that their surveillance is effective, and letting the public see – ‘but got it massively wrong’. She suggests it’s a complete breach of privacy and the surveillance camera code of practice (and as Tony Porter has stressed, CCTV should be by consent, like British policing). Drones, she adds, may be fine for a defined area, a site, with proper notice and procedures whereby people can challenge use, knowing that they may be under surveillance. “It’s a real can of worms,” she says in summary of drones. She agreed with Professional Security that drones will become only more sinister as they become smaller, and with more powerful cameras. While she could see applications for drones in theatres of war, in civilian applications the legal and ethical questions abound. What signs are there, that the authorities are addressing those questions? She points to regulators such as Tony Porter (working to the Protection of Freedoms Act), and the Office of the Information Commissioner, who are at work on drones. However, Tony Porter’s remit is only with public bodies such as the police and local government; not private or mixed public-private users of cameras such as hospitals and colleges. The nature of such regulatory or British Standards work is that it takes time, and lags behind the advances in technology. If and when regulations do catch up, how, Kirstie asks, to inventivise the private owners of drones to use surveillance devices in a proper way, as a ‘trusted provider’.

Are we more casual?
Professional Security queried if the sheer amount of surveillance we do with and to each other – thanks to smartphones and social media – has made people more casual about being under surveillance. She replied that people do worry that their privacy on social media, but their concern is not necessarily against the likes of Facebook, but more with their peers. Put another way, people are concerned about their privacy in terms of their social group, rather than the internet company. “I think there’s a greater degree of awareness of surveillance generally, but also people don’t really know what to do about it. They know it’s happening to them, but they don’t know how to control what’s going on.” What focused minds, she went on, was ‘Snowden’ – that is, the US whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who in 2013 revealed US and UK spy agency access to our communications. Tech companies are responding with more privacy settings or encryption for their products. She points also to research that suggests when people become more informed about surveillance technology – such as automatic number plate recognition – they start to question it more and feel such ‘smart CCTV’ is intrusive, and with detriments besides benefits.

She warns managers of security and police officers wearing body-worn video to be careful about how they talk about and appraise such use of cameras, for the messages that sends to staff. Yes, body-worn provides admissable evidence if an officer is called to a crime; but body-worn she calls ‘a form of workplace surveillance’. “It’s very pervasive as well, because it’s real time. They can activate the cameras themselves, they can start them recording, but it’s a surveillance of your [the officer’s] actions, as well as the people you are observing.” She points to plentiful academic research on workplace surveillance, such as in call centres. How will security managers performance-manage body-worn? By measuring the number of incidents recorded? Or the quality of job done as a result of the body-cam? Bearing in mind that inserting a surveillance device into a potentially fractious situation may antagonise the people being filmed. Body-worn may be a case of ‘watch this space’ (again, pardon any pun). Some users may find that the visible filming shocks and quietens the one playing up; protesters may respond by filming too. In any case, it goes to show that you cannot expect security officers to carry a camera without it changing the way they feel about their job; without them needing reassurance.

Drones: the law
If you are using a drone for a commercial use or with surveillance fitted, you need permission from the Civil Aviation Authority. You must not fly them at all within 50m of people, vehicles or buildings and not at congested places such as concerts or sports stadia. Visit Quite how the CAA enforces any of this it doesn’t say.


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