A CCTV operator with fifteen years’ experience of operating public space cameras has alleged frequent breaches of protocol at a council in Scotland.

The former employee of East Ayrshire Council told The Ferret that whilst working at the authority’s multi-million pound Risk Management Centre, he saw CCTV operators breach privacy rules on a daily basis by tracking people in the area, even though they did not have the legal authorisation to do so.

Some workers would use the cameras to track people on the streets if they “didn’t like the colour of their skin” or to follow people they found physically attractive, he claimed.

He even alleged that one operator, who is now retired, would purposefully seek out weekend evening shifts so that he could “perv” on women enjoying a night out.

The ex-council worker, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that he complained to senior staff that such behaviour was not only discriminatory and inappropriate, but also constituted “directed surveillance”, and thus was a breach of people’s privacy. The allegations are all denied by East Ayrshire Council.

Camera operators are supposed to obtain authorisation from senior managers under strict surveillance rules set out in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Act 2000 before tracking people.

However, he says his complaints were dismissed by managers, and that on several occasions where he had raised a complaint he was “taken aside or taken in for an unrecorded meeting where I was given veiled threats about causing trouble”.

At other times, he says, camera staff would often ignore the monitors completely for hours.

He claims that some camera operators used the council’s CCTV systems to watch their own children playing at school, or watch them walking home, rather than monitor the higher crime areas nearby.

They would even be used by employees to go “window shopping.”

The revelations have emerged as surveillance groups are demanding greater independent oversight of public space CCTV services.

These reports will horrify people who would never have dreamed that their right to privacy could be disregarded in such a cavalier fashion. Alison McInness MSP

Commenting, Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokeswoman Alison McInnes MSP called for an urgent review into CCTV safeguards by the Scottish Government.

“These reports are hugely concerning. The spread of CCTV has rapidly outstripped our capacity to protect the civil liberties of those being followed on camera,” she said.

“CCTV can help keep us safe and protect against criminal activity but that does not mean operators should have carte blanche to track people on the basis of the colour of their skin or physical attractiveness. These reports will horrify people who would never have dreamed that their right to privacy could be disregarded in such a cavalier fashion.”

The Ferret made contact with the former council employee through a social media site, and although he wished to remain anonymous, The Ferret has independently verified that he did work for East Ayrshire council, and has confirmed some details in his testimony.

When we put the issues raised by the former CCTV operator to East Ayrshire Council, Chris McAleavey, the council’s deputy chief executive and strategic lead for safer communities said: “We categorically reject all of those allegations.”

“There is no evidence whatsoever of any concerns being raised with us by this former employee either verbally, or in writing, during the entire course of their employment with us.”

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Little training

The man who made the claims about East Ayrshire Council began his career fifteen years ago as a CCTV operator in an East Ayrshire police station, although he was always employed by the council, not the police.

He took a voluntary severance package from the council last year.

Whilst working at the police station he says he won commendations for his work there, after he helped to identify people involved in anti-social behaviour, as well as more serious crimes.

His concerns over the service he worked in began to grow after the council centralised the management of CCTV in a new multi-million pound Risk Management Centre, along with a number of other 24 hour services.

Extra services such as care alarms, which provide support to vulnerable people in the area, and council security services, which monitor property owned by the council, such as schools, were merged with this CCTV service.

According to our source, when the new centre opened around two thirds of the newly enlarged staff team at the centre had no experience of CCTV, as they came from other services, and they were given little training.

This lack of training, he believes, was one of the key causes of the malpractice he claims he saw.

He explains: “They bunched us all into one thing and said basically, right: “You’re doing their job, and they’re doing your job.”

“You’re basically doing a job share more or less between CCTV, community alarms and we also did the out of hours helpline, and a number of things with the council. Basically everything and anything out of hours, we did it.

“But then they had two thirds of the staff that came from the care alarms. So that was two thirds of them that didn’t know a thing about CCTV.”

As the staff received very little formal training in the privacy rules governing the use of the cameras, it fell to their more experienced colleagues to try to explain what to do.

“Training was what they called “On Job,”… it wasn’t very clever at all. But that’s the council for you.”

Little oversight

Our source says there was also very little oversight over how the cameras were being used on a day-to-day basis.

Recorded CCTV footage is only kept for a matter of weeks, and footage was never independently reviewed to check that the rules were being followed. This, he claims, meant that the risk of employees – and their managers – being held responsible for poor practice was minimal.

The source explains: “One of my main complaints when we were in the council-run centre was that what I would consider Directed Surveillance [was] used on an almost daily basis on a group of people.”

“My colleagues at work. They would more or less sit and watch these people all day every day.”

“I complained about it, several times to my manager. I said to him, this is Directed Surveillance. What they’re doing is wrong. They shouldn’t be watching someone.”

You're not supposed to follow people with the cameras and that's what I saw happening on a daily basis at East Ayrshire Council. Former CCTV Operator

“You’re not supposed to follow people with the cameras, or have the camera zoomed in watching people very closely, and that’s what I saw happening on a daily basis at East Ayrshire Council.”

Poor levels of training also manifested themselves in other ways at the centre.

When some members of staff witnessed an event that could become of interest to the police, less confident staff could become wary of being in control of the CCTV cameras.

Our source says that during one incident, “I encountered staff, who more or less said, you take control of the camera, because they were worried that they would see an incident that they’d need to attend court over.

“Their thinking was: ‘If I’m not watching the camera, it’s your incident. That means you’ve got to write it up, and obviously you’re the one who’s going to have to appear in court because of it.'”

“That happened, not that often, but fairly regularly, and they’d quite often use the excuse of well, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’”

“I used to think to myself… you fucking eejit. You’ve been here for four fucking years, you should know what you’re doing by now.”

Austerity bites

East Ayrshire Council is not alone in seeking efficiency savings by centralising most of their 24 hour services in one building.

The City of Glasgow has just spent £16m upgrading their General Operations Centre, installing software that can track the movements of people automatically as they move around the city in the process.

Councillors in Edinburgh have been lobbying the Scottish Government for funding to establish a similar CCTV hub for south east Scotland, and at least five other local authorities run similar centralised CCTV monitoring centres.

But as local councils wrestle with declining budgets and growing demands on the statutory services they provide, as in East Ayrshire, these control centres are often taking on more and more services.

As long ago as 2013 concerns over council-funded CCTV services were raised by Police Scotland in a report to the Scottish Government obtained by The Ferret.

It claimed that some council-run CCTV services were in “crisis”, and that increasing demands on control rooms would “dilute the volume and quality of proactive CCTV monitoring”.

More commonly within local authorities where CCTV control rooms may operate 24/7, they are seen as a resource to be used also to provide cover for any “out-of-hours” service e.g. housing repairs reporting, community alarm, intruder alarm and property CCTV monitoring etc.

More recently, a report by privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch identifies a 51% overall reduction in spending on CCTV by local authorities across Scotland.

East Ayrshire is identified as among the councils that have made significant overall cuts. According to Big Brother Watch figures the council spent £3.1m on CCTV between 2007-11, but this fell to just £315,265 in the following three year period to 2015.

In response, McAleavey insisted that East Ayrshire remained among the higher spending Scottish councils. He explained that the apparent drop in funding identified by Big Brother Watch could be accounted for by the extra spending associated with setting up the Risk Management Centre.

He said: “Financially, the £3.1 million referred to, was the initial capital expenditure needed to set up and equip the Risk Management Centre and this dates back to before 2012.

“It is a one-off cost and should not be confused with the ongoing annual funding needed to run and maintain the centre, which comes to £315,000 – one of the highest spends of any Scottish Local Authorities.”

How much are Scottish councils spending on CCTV?

The interactive map below shows how spending on CCTV has changed in most local authorities in Scotland.


Figures compiled by Big Brother Watch and augmented with additional data held by The Ferret.

A great tool for public safety?

After taking a voluntary severance package from the council in 2015, our source still thinks that CCTV is worth investing in, but only if it is managed correctly.

“One of the things I feel about CCTV is, that it’s a good system if it’s used properly. It can be a very good system, it can be very advantageous to the police. It can be a great tool for public safety. But I don’t think it’s being used that way.”

Meanwhile Big Brother Watch has called for “a single enforceable Code of Practice which applies to all CCTV cameras”, in a bid to bring more transparency to the way CCTV services are operated.

There is currently no independent oversight of public space CCTV systems in Scotland.

The new proposed code includes requirements for local authorities to report on how their systems are used and the extent of their capabilities.

These are issues the campaign group feels are only likely to become more important as councils introduce new technologies, such as facial recognition software.

Transparency will become even more vital as authorities begin to introduce more invasive technologyClick To Tweet

Daniel Nesbitt, research director of Big Brother Watch, said “Whenever new CCTV systems are installed proper information must be released to show why it is happening and how the privacy of citizens will be protected.”

“Transparency will become even more vital as authorities begin to introduce new and more invasive technology such as facial recognition software or 3D cameras.”

“It’s important that when any new scheme is considered local residents are consulted first and made aware of the impact it will have, privacy must always be given the same consideration as security.

Calls for a single UK-wide enforceable code have also been backed by the Surveillance Commissioner for England and Wales, Tony Porter, in another recently released report.

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In it, he noted interest from a number of Scottish bodies in a Surveillance Camera Code of Practice linked to the Protection of Freedoms Act (PoFA), legislation covering England and Wales that sets out how CCTV operators should manage their networks.

He said: “We have had much interest in the PoFA Code and certification from authorities in Scotland even though they are not covered by the legislation.”

“Extending the scope here could be good for public protection and confidence in Scotland. It could also create greater consistency in regulatory requirements for businesses such as system designers, installers and contractors who may operate across the UK.”

The CCTV service in Glasgow has already been certified, and Edinburgh’s community safety leader, Councillor Cammy Day, told The Ferret that when the capital completes a planned £1m CCTV camera upgrade “we will ensure that we align these new operations with other standards of practice, such as the Surveillance Camera Commissioner’s guidelines”.

The call to tighten regulations on public sector use of CCTV in Scotland from the Surveillance Commissioner and Big Brother Watch follows similar calls from other groups, including Scotland Against Criminalising Communities, the Open Rights Group and the Police Scotland regulator, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS).

Liberal Democrat justice spokeswoman McInnes said: “Now we face the prospect of facial recognition technology being rolled out in cities like Edinburgh before legislation that could protect us against this sort of abuse of power is in place. We need an urgent review of whether the existing codes of practice are sufficient.”

But in response to enquiries by The Ferret, the Scottish Government has said it has no plans to formally adopt the PoFA code, or extend the remit of the Surveillance Camera Commissioner north of the border.

This means that Scottish councils will continue to be able to work to the largely voluntary standards set-out in the best practice guidance for Scotland, guidance that has not been updated since 2011, and they will continue to operate with little external oversight.

In response to the allegations made in this story about East Ayrshire’s CCTV, McAleavey also confirmed that the organisation was considering whether it should follow the lead of Glasgow City Council and seek third party certification for its system under the English guidance.

“We are fully committed to the exacting standards needed to operate CCTV systems and have completed the Surveillance Commissioner’s Code of Practice Survey. Third party certification is currently being evaluated for introduction.”

He added: “It is utterly despicable that a disgruntled former employee, who left the organisation with a voluntary severance package a year ago, has now decided to make a series of unfounded and malicious accusations against the Council’s Risk Management Centre and its staff.

“We categorically reject all of those allegations.”

“Our policies on racism, anti-social behaviour and public safety impose a clear duty of care on all our employees, not just those employed to monitor CCTV cameras, to report concerns, or instances where the behaviour of others is inappropriate.”

“These are dealt with swiftly and robustly with well-established, rigorous processes and procedures.”

“Every instance is formally logged and all notes, emails, conversations, meetings and interviews are minuted, to establish an auditable and reliable information trail.”

“There is no evidence whatsoever of any concerns being raised with us by this former employee either verbally, or in writing, during the entire course of their employment with us.”

“When an employee leaves the organisation, we also offer additional opportunities for any concerns, ideas or learning opportunities to be voiced.”

“There was no feedback from this individual at any stage in that process.”

“The Risk Management Centre has an excellent national reputation for delivering the highest quality monitoring and surveillance services and our staff are rightly regarded for their diligence and dedication to public safety.”

A spokesperson for the Scottish Government said: “The powers of the Surveillance Camera Commissioner do not extend to Scotland but CCTV providers in Scotland are encouraged to follow the Commissioner’s guidance.”

“While we recognise the importance of CCTV systems for the deterrence and detection of crime, responsibility for the investment in and maintenance of CCTV systems is a matter for local authorities and Police Scotland, working in partnership.”

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In Detail

The latest Big Brother Watch Report into local authority spending:

The Surveillance Camera Commissioner Review of the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice Report:

A briefing note from a meeting between the City of Edinburgh Council’s Cammy Day and Scottish Government Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs:

Comments

  1. Guys.. REALLY?

    The ex-camera operator didn’t want identified FOR SOME VERY GOOD REASONS.. but you tell us he started 15 years ago as a council contractor and he took voluntary severance last year from East Ayrshire council.

    Do you think that they are as stupid as you are?

    How many people do you think fall into that category.. you may as well just have mentioned his name.

    Are you guys some kind of honeypot, or are you just dangerously incompetent?

    Christ on a bike.

    (minus the curses in case it was filtered and you didn’t get it first time.)

    1. Hi, The Ferret takes source protection very seriously. In this case, the source of this story was aware of the amount of information that was published in this story, and told us, both prior to publication and afterwards, that he was happy with the level of disclosure.

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