Closed circuit television cameras capable of facial recognition at a range of up to half a mile may be in breach of the Human Rights Act according to Andrew Rennison, the UK's first surveillance camera commissioner.
Mr Rennison, who was appointed last month, suggested that the proliferation of increasingly sophisticated high definition cameras able to identify an individual or a vehicle number plate may be in breach of Article 8 of the Act, which seeks to protect the right to privacy and family life. Mr Rennison warned that the continued installation of such technology without consultation could lead to understandable public concern. "I'm convinced that if we don't regulate it properly – i.e. the technological ability to use millions of images that we capture – there will be a huge public backlash", he said.
The rapid development of surveillance cameras has reduced both the size and the price of equipment, making extremely sophisticated technology increasingly affordable and accelerating its proliferation in both public and private spaces. Mr Rennison said, "A tiny camera with a 360-degree view can capture your face in the crowd, and there are now the algorithms that run in the background. I've seen the test reviews that show there's a high success rate of picking out your face against a database of known faces…The technology has overtaken our ability to regulate it."
The difficulty in regulating CCTV is evident in the fact that it is not even known how many cameras there are in the UK. Estimates put the figure at somewhere between 1.8 million and 4.2 million, at least 95% of which are privately owned. Nevertheless, Mr Rennison, who is currently only responsible for the technology employed in state-owned public spaces, made clear that the implementation of these technological advancements was potentially invasive and disproportionate. "I don't want the state to carry on and start pushing the boundaries", he said. "Let's have a debate – if the public supports it, then fine. If the public don't support, and we need to increase the regulation, then that's what we need to do…Biometric technology has to be regulated to forensic standards – facial recognition, facial comparison, gait analysis – because that is a whole new area in forensic science."
Mr Rennison is currently overseeing the creation of a new code of practice designed to encourage greater transparency in the use of CCTV, which is due to come into effect in April 2013. He will represent the interests of the public, ensuring police and local authorities use surveillance systems responsibly and follow any agreed code of conduct.