CCTV and Its Effects on Privacy Rights

Closed circuit television has been used for surveillance and security purposes in the UK since as early as 1970, and the technology’s usage has broadened from originally only high risk targets such as banks to almost all high street shops. The predicted 4.5 million CCTV cameras thought to be in the UK are largely unmanned, and are now capable of producing very high resolution images. But as being recorded becomes more and more a part of our daily lives, controversy is emerging.

A security camera, by Anja Ranneberg

The usage of CCTV for suspect identification in court trials has caused controversy in the past as some question its accuracy and reliability when footage is not totally clear, or when there is a reasonable doubt that the film could be showing someone else. Now the opposite argument is used by some critics; innocent civilians who should not be recorded can have their faces recognised and tracked from up to half a mile away. Others simply have a problem with it because they believe that it is excessively intrusive to day to day life. There is at least one camera for every 14 people in the UK, and the fact that each person in the UK is captured up to 300 times a day by CCTV makes the UK the most recorded country in Europe.

Article 8 of the European Convention on Human rights is used by critics of CCTV in this debate to defend rights to private life, and weigh this right as more significant than the benefits of surveillance, even if CCTV potentially helps defend other human rights. It is a qualified right, however, meaning there are certain circumstances where some interference with it is justifiable, but still there remains a potential grey area over how exactly these circumstances manifest in the real world. Within Article 8 is the right to respect for an individual’s home and correspondence, simply meaning that every individual is entitled to a level of personal privacy compatible with a democratic society.

It has become common practice for cameras to be installed in UK schools for privacy reasons, but the Chelmsley Wood 2010 school case where cameras were installed in school toilets caused widespread discontent with the increase in rate of CCTV usage altogether. Some cite general and perhaps vague negative psychological effects of non-stop surveillance as a reason against widespread camera use, but in the past reasons against recording have been undeniably more legally grounded. The 1995 case of Geoffrey Peck, who was recorded attempting to commit suicide in Brentford, was an ongoing case of privacy infringement all the way up until 2003. The footage of his attempted suicide was widely circulated throughout the UK without Mr Peck’s consent, and because of this the European Court of Human Rights found that Article 8 had been violated. Although Mr Peck was in a public place, he was still entitled to some privacy. It was also noted that Mr Peck could not ever have been reasonably expected to foresee the extent of public exposure that ensued.

The 1988 data protection act goes some way to explaining the responsibilities of CCTV users, however because its purpose is to protect individual privacy, almost anyone is entitled to place cameras on their property provided the cameras are not to observe one specific individual. Invasion of privacy is only a violation of human rights in the context of a state infringing upon an individual’s privacy, since the Act of Human Rights only applies to states and not individuals. When an individual is viewing someone or their property using CCTV, the police often have to resort to using the harassment act to resolve the matter.

Cameras installed specifically to monitor behaviour and identify potential criminals must legally be registered with the Information Commission. These cameras are unambiguously covered by the Data Protection Act. The act can work in favour of those filmed too; if a video subject requests their footage it must in most cases be made available to them upon request, unless for some reason that would be legally inappropriate in that specific situation.

The issue of certain groups being in favour of widespread surveillance and others being in opposition must also be noted in the debate. Disagreement has been caused where it is not entirely clear cut if privacy is being infringed upon or not. People more likely to be harassed, perhaps for political or religious reasons, could claim that the presence of CCTV protects their other rights, and that people may be less likely to commit crimes of harassment or abuse if they are monitored. Yet alongside this, many criticise that CCTV is not the answer to discrimination and that deep rooted attitudinal changes must take place in society to stop prejudice and abusive behaviour from occurring.

Overall the usage of CCTV, in the UK at least, is set to rise as population does. Although the metropolitan police have admitted surveillance is not a perfect tool, no financially equivalent alternative seems available at this point in time. Some feel safer with potential criminals being heavily recorded, and others feel uncomfortable that this includes innocent civilians being watched as well. Opinions in favour or against CCTV simply rely on the significance each individual places on its benefits and drawbacks.

To read about the history of human rights in general, Amnesty International has a broad history of Human Rights Law and its enforcement. For a more specific look at the history of CCTV and privacy rights in the United Kingdom, Gallagher’s 2003 paper on the matter makes for very interesting reading.

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