Who’s Watching You?

By Anthony Hildebrand |

A new BBC series looks at surveillance in the UK. It’s something the industry could learn from, says I4S editor Anthony Hildebrand.

Last Monday the BBC broadcast the first in a new three-part series called ‘Who’s Watching You?’ UK readers can view the show (until next Monday) by using the BBC’s iPlayer facility.

In his BBC blog, series producer Mike Rudd says: “Cheaper and more advanced technology has prompted a massive expansion in surveillance — not just through CCTV, listening devices, tracking, but also through all the personal data that’s collected on every one of us.

“As the Information Commissioner Richard Thomas says, we leave an “electronic footprint” behind us almost wherever we go — with every click of the mouse, every phone call, every time we use a credit card. And that information just grows and grows, allowing a more and more detailed and intrusive picture to be constructed of how we each live our lives.

“The paradox is that there is a great deal of support for things like CCTV. We all benefit from better crime detection and from easier and cheaper services. But we know surprisingly little about the depth and breadth of modern surveillance, or about the potential problems when things go wrong.”
A lot to offer
The show is an ‘authored’ piece, with presenter Richard Bilton offering his views and opinions on the issues raised — which included council misuse of RIPA powers, ANPR use by police, data loss, and more.

And because it’s an authored investigation, it employs ever-present, irritating, faux-degraded imitations of CCTV footage, and annoying, constantly moving, constantly zooming and re-focusing cameras. We get it, Mike, ok? It’s about CCTV. Relax.

But despite these stylistic reservations, I think programmes such as this one have a lot to teach the security industry about the actual concerns of the public. Investigations into the ‘surveillance state’ are often dismissed by the industry as alarmist and ill-informed, but the very fact that programmes such as this one are being made — to express the concerns of a sizable proportion of the public — mean the image of the surveillance industry could do with some improving.

If the security industry is to be effective in preventing crime, terror and other incidents, and in investigating and prosecuting those that do take place, it needs the trust of the public behind it.
Confusing messages
As Bilton himself said on Monday, the British public sends out confusing messages about surveillance. “We embrace it, and want more, not less,” he said. And we allow cameras deeper into our private lives than authorities would (currently) dare go.

But there is a constant concern about the potential for a ‘police state’. And that is amplified when cameras and surveillance methods become intrusive.

This can be simply an irritation. But there’s potential for it to be much worse, unless it is regulated and controlled effectively.

We’re always told “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to worry about.” Which is fine if you know where you stand. But what if the goalposts shift? What if — perish the thought — a government which you don’t agree with, with different notions of what ‘nothing to hide’ might mean — comes to power?
Protected from protectors
There needs to be a system in place to ensure surveillance — and more specifically, surveillance databases — cannot be used against the people they are meant to protect.

Like it or not, the security industry has a responsibility to ensure that the use of its equipment and technologies are safeguarded through effective and stringent privacy and data protection legislation and enforceable standards.

And for its own good — for our own good — it needs to be seen to be advocating privacy, care with databases, and individual rights. It’s not only good PR, it’s for the greater good.

At the close of the first episode, Bilton says he seen no evidence so far to support ‘Big Brother’ theories. But, he says: “I think the march of surveillance is pretty much unstoppable. And if that’s the case, I think we need more protection, better regulations, and stronger safeguards.”