Why Big Brother could be your friend

Graphic of several CCTV cameras honing in on individuals
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

A major obstacle that police forces often face is obtaining information invariably locked away in data silos, such as volumes of CCTV footage. Delivering high-quality policing requires detailed and focused information, and a new initiative aims to provide masses of new data for police officers to act on.

The Investigate Digital Evidence Management Software (DEMS) developed by Nice – an Israel-based company that specialises in data security and surveillance – automates evidence collection. It’s been adopted by the National Business Crime Centre (NBCC), a body created by the Home Office to improve relationships between businesses and law enforcement and improve intelligence gathering. NBCC hopes the police, armed with more CCTV data, can better protect businesses’ premises and their staff. Wider data sharing also raises concerns about privacy, and the expansion of the surveillance state, especially given existing provisions set out in law.

Eyes wide shut

Boots was among the first large enterprises to agree to supply DEMS with its CCTV data. “We have a large number of stores with both internal and external CCTV cameras for investigating all types of crimes and incidents,” says Iona Blake, Boots’ security and incident manager. “The addition of the Nice investigate technology allows Boots to engage in the right level of data sharing with local police forces. For us, it’s all about how can we get better at reporting crimes.”

Alongside CCTV footage, the DEMS architecture can absorb other forms of digital content and aggregate this to deliver case reports when they’re needed. These datasets can also be seen through what the developers call a Google-like search engine that uses Microsoft Azure as its hosting platform.

Although more businesses are expected to sign up for DEMS in the coming months, relinquishing CCTV footage wholesale may invoke controversy among customers, given the extent to which they may feel their privacy is being violated. The public would support the broader use of DEMS, however, if the appropriate protections are put in place, Tony Porter, CPO at Corsight AI and former Surveillance Camera Commissioner, tells IT Pro.

"Policies will need to be developed to ensure unnecessary data isn’t stored or transferred to law enforcement, which could potentially breach data processing principles,” he says. “Looking at this issue through a different prism, are we seriously saying the public is satisfied with the use of CCTV, provided its use is ineffective? As technology advances, perhaps we’re now seeing its intended value.”

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The retail sector is highly susceptible to crime, with the latest British Retail Consortium (BRC) Crime Survey finding violence against staff rose from 424 incidents to 455 per day between April 2019 and March 2020. This was recorded alongside £935 million of losses due to theft. The fact that only 6% of violent incidents end in prosecution, too, is fuelling calls for greater access to CCTV footage. With the British Security Industry Association (BSIA) estimating ten million CCTV cameras operate across the UK, this source of information is, unsurprisingly, highly desired. Businesses, however, must reconcile the value in granting access to their footage with their obligation to comply with data protection regulations.

The BRC is clear, in its report, that any existing regulations shouldn’t pose a barrier to effective law enforcement. It also urges the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) should ignore suggestions by the European Data Protection Board to limit the sharing of CCTV data. How CCTV footage is used can become highly contentious, however, as was shown by the case of Ed Bridges v South Wales Police (SWP).

Bridges initially complained his image was taken using automated facial recognition (AFR) technology while he was shopping in 2017. The court sided with SWP, at first, but he escalated the case to the Court of Appeal last year, which took his side. The court ruled SWP never sought to establish whether the software harboured underlying biases. This case speaks volumes about how much care must be taken when capturing and sharing CCTV data, with businesses required to ensure they’re fully compliant with all regulatory requirements.

Jason Smith, chief commercial officer for Meeco, a platform that enables access control to data, tells IT Pro that public sentiment could become an issue if CCTV footage was shared more freely with law enforcement. “A lot of research around the world suggests we are all concerned about data privacy, but we don't have any agency,” he says. “The public sentiment may well be “I'm not happy...but what can I do about it?”. Ed Bridges wasn't very happy, but he needed the support of Liberty to bring a claim and take it to the Court of Appeal. I imagine most people aren't even aware of any rights they may have under GDPR.”

Avoiding mission creep

The more data systems like DEMS are fed, the more efficiently they operate. Linking thousands of CCTV cameras together would supply the system with vast ocenas of data. Systems like this, however, could be seen as the thin end of the wedge, according to co-founder of the Privacy Compliance Hub, Nigel Jones.

“The public and businesses need to think not about what this system is now, but what it may quickly become,” he tells IT Pro. “At present, it’s being positioned as a system to make it easier for the police to catch criminals such as shoplifters stealing razor blades and electric toothbrushes from Boots. It could, however, quite easily become a system that collates CCTV footage from security cameras in businesses, public places and from your neighbours' doorbells.

“Combine that with facial recognition and you have a system that can track me, you and all our children across any built-up area, which is accessible to a third-party software company we know little about, numerous police forces in the UK and overseas together with the governments in those countries, without any of us having consented to it, or really understood the consequences. That, to many, is an extremely frightening prospect.”

Nice’s executive vice president, Chris Wooten, dampens these fears, suggesting the need for businesses and police forces to work together is greater than ever. “The volume of crime is rising and getting digital evidence into the hands of police investigators can be a time-consuming, drawn-out, manual process,” he says. Officers, Wooton continues, may need to travel to sites across the country to collect evidence, which is time-consuming; systems that can streamline this process will help the police break through the log-jam and free up resources. Although systems like DEMS represent the inevitable evolution of data collection and analysis, the critical component will be ensuring strong safeguards are always in place.

David Howell

David Howell is a freelance writer, journalist, broadcaster and content creator helping enterprises communicate.

Focussing on business and technology, he has a particular interest in how enterprises are using technology to connect with their customers using AI, VR and mobile innovation.

His work over the past 30 years has appeared in the national press and a diverse range of business and technology publications. You can follow David on LinkedIn.