High-def CCTV cameras risk backlash, warns UK watchdog

Avigilon CCTV camera The latest cameras can be fitted with professional SLR camera lenses to improve images taken

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High-definition closed-circuit television (CCTV) risks sparking a public backlash, according to the UK government's surveillance commissioner.

Andrew Rennison told the Independent newspaper that "the technology has overtaken our ability to regulate it".

Surveillance cams now offer up to 29 megapixels, surpassing many cameras used by professional photographers.

Manufacturer's figures suggest there will be 129,299 HD CCTV cameras in the UK by the end of 2012.

The HDCCTV Alliance has predicted that number would rise to over 3.7 million by 2016.

A shift from the use of analogue to digital equipment is also helping drive the quality of the images the cameras capture.

Defenders of the technology note that it helps discourage crime and has helped law enforcement officers identify offenders.

An earlier report by the Integrated CCTV news site said that evidence gathered by surveillance cameras had helped secure some of the convictions that followed 2011's London riots.

'Face in a crowd'

The UK government has asked Mr Rennison to draw up a code of conduct for CCTV use in England and Wales. He is due to present a report to Parliament in April. His interview suggests he will take a tough line.

"It is the Big Brother scenario playing out large," he told the Independent.

"It's the ability to pick out your face in a crowd from a camera which is probably half a mile away."

CCTV images from London during 2011 riots CCTV images helped police arrest suspects after 2011's riots

He also flagged that research was being carried out to pair the technology with facial recognition software to run captured images against databases of known offenders.

Manufacturers are using a range of techniques to improve image quality.

For example Bosch's top-end Dinion camera records images using the HDR (high dynamic range) dual-exposure process to capture more detail in an image's shadows.

It allows owners to save up to 30 frames per second in 1080p quality video and uses an infrared filter to improve its performance at night.

By contrast Avigilon's top-of-the-range camera only takes two images per second at full resolution but produces 29MP photos.

It can be fitted with Canon's SLR (single-lens reflex) camera lenses to extend its range.

Crime prevention

Mr Rennison said that he intended to consult lawyers to discuss whether the UK's use of HD CCTV cameras meant there had been a breach of European human rights legislation.

But the Local Government Association, which represents councils in England and Wales, highlighted the technology's benefits.

"Whether it's tracking down a thug who brutally mugged an old lady, a vandal who trashed a war memorial or searching for a missing child, CCTV plays a crucial role in tackling crime and making people safer," said Mehboob Khan, chairman of the association's Safer and Stronger Communities Board.

"Town halls don't install cameras on a whim. They consult with residents, businesses and police on whether CCTV is appropriate in an area.

Bosch Dinion HD 1080p HDR camera Bosch's camera uses software to continually adjust its settings to ensure the highest-quality image

"In many instances councils are responding to requests from these groups. As well as serious crimes like burglary, it has also proven effective in reducing antisocial behaviour on our streets, a key factor in whether people feel safe and comfortable in their communities."

Campaign group Big Brother Watch reported in February that the UK local councils had spent £515m over the previous four years on CCTV operations and controlled at least 51,600 standard and high definition cameras.

It welcomed Mr Rennison's intervention but warned that his report might still prove ineffective.

"The Home Office has undermined the commissioner from the start by giving him absolutely no powers to act when he views that wrongdoing may have occurred," it said in a statement.

"Proper regulation of CCTV needs someone to have the power to inspect cameras and punish those breaking the law. If the Home Office is serious about this issue then the surveillance camera commissioner needs proper powers to protect our privacy."

A statement from the Home Office said Mr Rennison would develop a new code of practice to "empower the public to shine a light on those who operate camera systems in public places, challenging them to show the use of these systems is justified, proportionate and effective".

International demand

The UK is far from being the only country to utilise the technlogy.

A study by RNCOS suggests the global CCTV market will be worth about $23.5bn (£14bn) a year by the end of 2014.

It said that Asia and the Middle East would soon account for about one quarter of that market, thanks in large part to growing demand for the products in India and China.

It added that the adoption of internet-connected cameras meant that more footage was being stored off-site for longer periods of time, and that gigapixel camera technology would mean even higher quality images in the future.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 1162.

    Public places are just that.. public. You should fully expect to BE SEEN TO BE SEEN in a public place, so for me there is no problem. If you want privacy, stay indoors or buy your own road.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1161.

    There are 4.2 million CCTV cameras in use in Britain - those are just the overt ones- so it isn't a question of if or when Britain becomes a surveillance state: we are a surveillance state.

    There is little to no regulation on the use of CCTV cameras by the state or by private citizens. With technology advancing at a rapid pace the lack of a regulatory framework creates a free-for-all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1160.

    If I go to where one of these cameras is set up and note the date and time can I get the passport office to use the image for my passport, driving licence etc. The image recognition programme will know who I am.

    The quality will be better than in a photobooth and will save me a few quid.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1159.

    Shame on the BBC
    I don't get thsi obsession with "Editor's picks" and rated comments. Why do people take this seriously? Is it all about getting some form of acknowledgement or attention seeking? It certainly feels that way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1158.

    Mike, you *can't* fight the misuse after it has become commonplace. You need the safeguards put in place from the start.

    You can't even do it democratically after the fact. The Tories said, vote for us and we will roll back the surveillance society; now they are intending to increase it to a lot of new areas, for example to aid tax assessment and to promote mental wellbeing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1157.

    @1155 'JonnyBoy'
    The police in the UK do operate by consent. As the police become more privatised to a few private companies, (G4S/Serco) operating off-shore to avoid tax, yet paid for by tax-payers and totally unaccountable to the public - just their shareholders.

    The Home Office are failing in their duty of care to the public by privatising police and replacing them with 'security' bandits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1156.

    The whole argument here is somewhat hysterical.
    CCTV cameras are not, in themselves, harmful or oppressive. It's how they're used. The arguments here revolve around the assumption that they'll be used to monitor everyone's movements.
    Well, if and when they're used for that, attack the usage, not the tool.
    After all, a knife can be used to cut up meat & veg. It can also be used to stab people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1155.

    So far no-one on the pro-side has addressed the question is it acceptable to use surveillance if a significant proportion of the law-abiding population disagree? Should we police by consent?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1154.

    Personally I think problems with whole-sale surveillance of a population will start to become clearer once other technologies have been fully incorporated into the system. Consider a CCTV network that uses facial, behavioural, voice and social recognition with access to a wide array of data bases that flags to operators potential threats:

    Who is making the decision to arrest?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1153.

    I've always been of the opinion that if you've nothing to hide you've nothing to fear. We have high quality CCTV in the shop in which I work, and after a customer was assaulted by a man twice her size and half her age last weekend, I have never been more glad that we have CCTV to help catch the viscous criminals who attack innocent people just going about their daily business.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1152.

    I'm surprised that speed cameras and outside CCTV cameras have not been stolen for their metal content by those in balaclavas or other disguises.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1151.

    No problem with this at all. As far as human rights are concerned, let's look after the majority of law abiding citizens for a change. IF any problems occur down the line let's deal with them at that point, don't put in get out of jail free terrorist/crook clauses beforehand for the sake of it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1150.

    A note to the 'nothing to hide nothing to fear' brigade.... Will you still say that if you get locked up in a cell and interrogated for hours trying to prove your identity because the 'gait recognition' software some of these cameras now use decides that you walk like a wanted criminal ? Or are you naive enough to believe that 100% reliable software actually exists?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1149.

    @592.Ruth, the editor and others.
    Nothing to hide is NOT nothing to fear. In 1930 German Jews had nothing to hide or fear. Please don't talk ROT! This is a democracy and ANYTHING can happen.
    Cameras are part of an infrastructure to subdue protest in this country - no fuel price strikes, no riots, no demonstrations near 'parliament' - all part of a shut up we no best attitude from a police state.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1148.

    1136. Tim Gould

    I wondered when someone was going to mention speed cameras.
    The fact is that if nobody broke the speed limit they wouldn't raise any money. If you break the speed limit, put there for a purpose, you are breaking the law!
    And yes, I've been copped, twice, and both times I was breaking the law and it was my fault.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1147.

    You and I will have to agree to disagree. I remember when the courts accepted the banks' word that their ATM software was infallible, and when juries were told DNA fingerprinting was 100% and statistics could tell if a baby had been shaken to death.

    I think within 10 years the technology will be good enough to use, and if sufficient safeguards are not put in place, it will be misused.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1146.

    1143. JonnyBoy

    So are you saying that if the police rely on misleading and bug-ridden information, it's all right?


    I'm not saying that at all. What I'm saying is that its inherent unreliability will prevent its use in the first place. If it is used, its reputation will be destroyed by the first test case it comes up against in court.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1145.

    Criminals are becoming more adept at disguising themselves. HD CCTV may help in identifying random criminals, but not the increasingly sophisticated organised crime inflicting the UK that requires more police, not less.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1144.

    Do we have enough prison space IF HD CCTV suddenly catches a lot of crooks? Or will they just be fined and given a community order?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1143.

    So are you saying that if the police rely on misleading and bug-ridden information, it's all right? Police incomprehension about how much reliance they can place on the information they get is a significant part of the problem.


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