Half of UK councils use body cams to spy on litterers

Big Brother Watch: Councils fail to complete privacy assessments on camera usage

Data privacy

Over half of all UK councils have issued body-worn cameras (BWCs) to officials recording parking infractions, while failing to conduct adequate assessments of its impact on privacy, according to a data protection campaign group.

The majority of councils deploying the technology (66%) routinely fail to complete Privacy Impact Assessments before deploying BWCs, new research suggests, while 21% of local authorities hold onto footage for longer than the 31 days adhered to by police forces.

This is according to Big Brother Watch, a civil liberties group that campaigns for user privacy. It argued that a "rush to use body worn cameras by local authorities is not being scrutinised closely enough". It also suggests that many councils are "heavy handed" in their use of surveillance tactics, and are often "lackadaisical with their approach to protecting personal data."

Big Brother Watch CEO Renate Samson said: "Despite repeated warnings about misuse of surveillance powers we have found that once again councils are choosing to use powerful law enforcement tools with little consideration for privacy."

"Using body worn cameras to protect people's safety is one thing, but widespread filming of people's behaviour in order to issue fines is simply not proportionate."

The 78-page report found that of 227 local authorities, 54% are currently using or trialling BWC technology to spy on minor offences such as breaking parking rules and littering, racking up costs of almost 1.8 million.

Of these, 150 (66%) are failing to properly assess the impact of the technology on the general public, which accounts for almost every recorded interaction, or correctly identify the potential privacy implications of storing data. 

Newham Council is currently the biggest buyer of BWCs, with 202 cameras available for deployment, amounting to 100,640 in spending. This is closely followed by Tower Hamlets at 91,000, and Hammersmith and Fulham at 48,000. Outside of London, Cardiff tops the spending list at 55,000.

BWCs provide a valuable tool for effective policing, particularly when it comes to aggression towards officers, or complaints of police brutality, and are in use among London's Metropolitan police forces. Following a trial of the technology in California, complaints against officers dropped by 87%, while instances requiring the use of force dropped by almost 60%.

But an "overzealous" use of BWCs has seen local authorities exploiting the technology to catch minor misdemeanours to cash in on fines, according to Big Brother Watch's report.

The findings highlight that some councils, including Edinburgh and Chelmsford, state that the technology is there to improve the health and safety of their staff, however Spelthorne Council identified a range of use cases, including "abandoned vehicles, dog fouling, fly posting, graffiti, fly tipping, and untaxed vehicles." While a menace for local authorities, the report argues the use of technology in this way is "disproportionate as a solution".

A particularly egregious use of a BWC was highlighted recently when a pensioner was fined 80 for pouring a cup of coffee down the drain, something that three litter enforcement workers believed to against the law.

IT Pro has approached a number of councils for comment, but none were immediately available.

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