Spy on the Spanners

May 22, 2011

We have all become used to the concept of nannycams and various other ways that technology can aid personal surveillance operations. I was very keen a few weeks ago to invent a catcam – a small camera you put on your cat (or dog) to follow its daily life. However one of my sons informed me this was already on the market so back to the drawing board. My latest laptop also has a camera staring at me from the screen. We use Office Communicator which is a Microsoft instant messaging tool in our office. You can see if colleagues are busy or not and contact them during a meeting and so on. Anyway it also allows video conversations if you both have cameras.

Richard Susskind, our new President, gave us a short insight into the future at the SCL fellows dinner last week and one of his messages was that video conferencing will become far more advanced and  widespread over the next few years.

What you may well be asking has this to do with spanners. Well I booked my car, an Audi, in for a routine service recently. In addition to the usual stuff about contact details the service manager I spoke to asked me if I would like to watch the service taking place. I said I was busy and did not intend to spend a day at their garage. Oh no she explained. This is a new service we offer. We use a webcam which you can connect to over the internet so you can watch your technician (Audi word for mechanic) at work on your car. I declined thinking it might be a bit like watching paint dry.

But on reflection what a good idea. How many “rogue traders” are out there who may not do a good job or maybe do anything at all. Even respectable dealers are not always totally upfront about the work they have carried out on your car, and sometimes things get damaged by accident. So checking up on this sort of work seems a really interesting and valuable service. It could apply to anyone providing a service for you when you are not able to be present personally. Window cleaners, plumbers and builders generally come to mind. You could monitor the length of the ubiquitous tea break!

However all this made me think about surveillance generally and the use of CCTV cameras. Did you know that £500m was spent in the UK on systems between 1996 and 2006 resulting in some 4 million devices?  They are all over the place. Waiting for a train on Waterloo station a few months ago I counted around 20 plus cameras which were obviously visible from that part of the concourse.

The House of Lords Constitution Committee published a report in 2009 entitled “Surveillance:Citizens and the State available at


which discusses the absence of any effective regulation:

“213.  At present, there are few restrictions on the use of public area CCTV cameras in the UK. According to paragraph 1.4 of the Covert Surveillance Code of Practice, the provisions of RIPA do not apply to CCTV systems unless they are being used for a pre-planned surveillance operation. While the DPA regulates the handling, storage and processing of information obtained via CCTV, it does not place any restrictions on where such cameras can be installed in public or under what circumstances. Provided that they comply with the relevant planning restrictions, public authorities such as local councils are free to install CCTV systems in town centres and other public places (such as residential estates) without prior approval from central government or the permission of residents. Furthermore, as the DPA only governs how information that has been recorded and stored is dealt with, in principle it does not apply to situations where cameras are used for observation only and where no recording is made. As a consequence, local authorities and the police are in principle free to use CCTV cameras for general, unrecorded surveillance.”

The report concludes:

We recommend that the Government should propose a statutory regime for the use of CCTV by both the public and private sectors, introduce codes of practice that are legally binding on all CCTV schemes and establish a system of complaints and remedies. This system should be overseen by the Office of Surveillance Commissioners in conjunction with the Information Commissioner’s Office.”

I am I think generally a supporter of the usage of CCTV on the basis that I don’t mind being on camera if it promotes my general safety and prevents me being mugged. But I can also see that the use of such technology can be abused. Imagine a helicopter flying over your property to check whether you use the right wheelie bins or to find out if you are  abusing a hosepipe ban (it’s been the hottest spring since 1976 so there’s bound to be one this summer).

I am beginning to come round to the view  that the use of CCTV should be more directly regulated. There does not seem to be a mass of material on SCL’s site about this – just three articles that discuss CCTV and then as a part of a larger topic. I consider this is an important interface between technology and the law and invite contributions to SCL on this subject and indeed comments on this blog. Big brother is watching you – do you care?