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Tech regs, not ethics, close London CCTV

March 30, 2009

Hundreds of CCTV cameras in London will have to be shut down, but this has nothing to do with concerns over privacy, liberty or the surveillance society, it is entirely due to technical regulations.

The cameras, which are mobile road cameras owned by Westminster City Council, used for multiple tasks including anti-crime activities and protest-monitoring, but they are supposed to be for traffic regulation and as such must conform to technical standards set by the Department for Transport (DfT) -in this case, a 720 x 576 pixel picture size (analogue broadcast standard). Westminster’s are 704 x 576!

This might all seem rather petty were it not for two rather important aspects. First of all the case reminds us how surveillance introduced specifically for one area (traffic management) can creep into other areas for which they were never intended or authorized. This can also work in many directions: some of London’s congestion charge cameras were originally installed as anti-terrorism cameras after the IRA attacks of the early 90s.

Secondly, however it also shows, counter-intuitively, how weak is the regulation of CCTV in the UK. The fact is that the cameras have been stopped because of a technical infringement, and indeed there is in general an extensive and growing list of technical regulations and recommendations for CCTV issued by central Government bureaucracy, yet CCTV remains massively under-regulated when it comes to conformity with human rights and civil liberties, let alone for any consideration of the wider and longer-term social impacts of pervasive video surveillance. The closure of this system highlights the powerlessness of the British people in the face of increasingly authoritarian government, not their strength…

(Thanks to Aaron Martin for sending me this one)

6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 30, 2009 5:55 pm

    For me, this event illustrates a couple very important points, which I think surveillance studies as a field tends to neglect. The first is that we shouldn’t take for granted technology’s compliance in a given surveillance project. Possibly because of the field’s intellectual history, deriving from sociology and criminology, technology is often black-boxed and goes unquestioned. This is very problematic, I think, as it doesn’t treat the technology as a serious actor.

    Plans are often written up to achieve certain policy goals or business objectives, which have surveillance technology at their core, but due to the complexity of the systems involved, proponents can’t know everything there is to know that might be relevant to “making the technology work” in every conceivable context, including issues of standards, infrastructures, etc. We, as surveillance studies scholars, need to better understand the role of context in determining whether surveillance systems “work” or not, and how these technologies interact with these contexts differentially. In this case, from a regulatory standpoint, these systems aren’t “workable”, and to become “workable” a lot of technical repair work will need to be done. This is important. It shows that the technology isn’t a given, but should be problematized, too. We shouldn’t take the role of technology, technical standards, and infrastructures lightly in our analyses of surveillance.

    For more on this, see: http://heim.ifi.uio.no/~oleha/Publications/siste.enkel.doc.html

  2. David permalink
    March 30, 2009 6:07 pm

    No indeed – that’s a very important point too. As it happen, I have been arguing that people take the politics of technological ‘standards’ more seriously for quite a few years now. You occasionally meet a specialist in this area at conferences, but they tend to be regarded by many academics as being dull and a bit like train-spotters. This is very unfortunate.

  3. Maggie permalink
    March 31, 2009 8:35 am

    Danny Chalkley is talking rubbish again! Every local authority in thee UK has known for years that 720 x 576 pixels would be the legal requirement from 1st April 2009 so why on earth did Westminster City Council invest £15M in 704 x 576 pixels cameras? There is no point trying to blame DfT as this is clearly the fault of Westminster City Council. Anyway, the cameras can still be used for public safety, crime prevention and traffic management, they just can’t issue tickets using them so it seems very strange to suggest that they will have to be switched off. CCTV should be there for public safety not to issue fines to motorists, it’s absurd!

  4. March 31, 2009 9:02 am

    The BBC report on this has some more details: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/7971436.stm

    It seems the fuss is over “traffic management”

  5. March 31, 2009 9:04 am

    Correction: It seems the fuss is over issuing tickets, not traffic management

  6. David permalink
    March 31, 2009 10:28 am

    Thanks for the comments. Westminster Council has a long reputation for questionable financial management of course…

    Reading the BBC account, it does seem that the original story was exaggerating what might happen as a result of the technical infringement.

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