A government report co-authored by an academic at Stirling University has identified a “worrying vacuum” in surveillance camera plans for the UK. 

Professor William Webster contributed to an independent study that warned the plan to abolish biometrics and surveillance safeguards will leave the UK without oversight, “just when advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and other technologies mean they are needed more than ever”. 

The report by the Centre for Research into Information Surveillance and Privacy (CRISP) analyses the likely effect of abolishing the roles of the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner (BSCC) and the requirement for the government to publish a surveillance camera code of practice. 

At the moment the BSCC is responsible for overseeing police use of DNA and fingerprints in England and Wales (and in Scotland and Northern Ireland for national security purposes), and for encouraging the proper use of public space surveillance cameras. But both roles will be revoked if, as expected, the government’s Data Protection and Digital Information Bill becomes law in the spring of 2024. 

The 67-page report, commissioned by the BSCC after discussions with the Home Office, recognises that the government has made arrangements for the transfer and continuation of the BSCC’s “quasi-judicial functions” in relation to deciding police applications to retain DNA profiles and fingerprints of people arrested but not convicted of serious crimes, and of reviewing National Security Determinations which allow police to keep biometrics on national security grounds. 

However, the report also identifies significant areas where the government has made no specific plans to retain other BSCC oversight functions, including: 

  • reviewing police handling of DNA samples, DNA profiles and fingerprints 
  • maintaining an up-to-date surveillance camera code of practice with standards and guidance for practitioners and encouraging compliance with that code 
  • setting out technical and governance matters for most public body surveillance systems including how to approach evolving technology including AI-driven systems such as facial recognition technology 
  • providing guidance on technical and procurement matters to ensure that future surveillance systems are of the right standard and purchased from reliable suppliers 
  • providing reports to the Home Secretary and parliament about public surveillance and biometrics matters. 

The loss of the surveillance camera code is identified as a particularly retrograde step with research for the report showing that the code is widely valued and respected among security and surveillance practitioners. 

Professor Fraser Sampson, who completed his tenure as Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner at the end of October, said: “After receiving this report, I am more concerned than ever that, unless the government acts soon, there will be a worrying vacuum in our arrangements for overseeing and regulating these crucial areas of public life just when society needs those safeguards more than ever. 

“The lack of attention being paid to these important matters at such a crucial time is shocking, and destruction of the surveillance camera code that we’ve all been using successfully for over a decade is tantamount to vandalism. 

“There is no question that AI-driven biometric surveillance can be intrusive, and that the line between what is private and public surveillance is becoming increasingly blurred. The technology is among us already and the speed of change is dizzying with powerful capabilities evolving and combining in novel and challenging ways.” 

Webster, professor of public policy and management at Stirling Management School, and co-author Professor Pete Fussey of Essex University also provide a detailed analysis of government claims that non-judicial functions of the BSCC are duplicated elsewhere and therefore do not need to be specifically replaced when the BSCC is gone. 

The conclude that “none of these arguments bear robust scrutiny” and note particularly that the claim that the Information Commissioner’s Office will unproblematically take on many BSCC functions mistakes surveillance as a purely data protection matter and thereby “limits recognition of potential surveillance-related harms”.