CCTV Camera | Ian Britton | CC |

Exclusive: secret police report reveals CCTV in crisis

The CCTV network that scans Scotland’s streets, shops and parks is fragmented, obsolete and may violate the law, according to a secret police report unearthed by The Ferret.

A review of public space CCTV, conducted by Police Scotland for the Scottish Government in August 2013, reveals that a dozen local authorities failed to audit their CCTV networks to ensure they comply with data protection law. It also discloses that cameras worn by police officers to record encounters with the public are legally “questionable”

The report warns that a worsening funding crisis combined with a “clear lack of strategic leadership and accountability” could trigger breaches of privacy law, multiple breakdowns and make the country’s network of closed-circuit surveillance cameras unfit for purpose.

The CCTV network of around 2,800 cameras has developed over decades in an “incongruent”, “piecemeal” and “disparate” manner with “negligible strategic leadership”, the report says. “There have been significant instances where CCTV managers have found themselves in crisis with little continued revenue funding in place to pay for staff, equipment, maintenance etc.”

Multi-million pound public investment is required “at an urgent pace” if the network is to remain viable, it argues. “There is a major piece of work required to turnaround failing systems and to keep them fit for purpose,” it says. “Systems across the country are already becoming obsolete and redundant.”

The leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Willie Rennie MSP, will be raising The Ferret’s revelations in the Scottish Parliament. “This report paints a picture of a CCTV monitoring system that is shambolic , ramshackle and in some areas may not even be compliant with basic privacy laws,” he says.

Rennie was surprised that parliament has been kept in the dark. “The system needs an urgent overhaul,” he argues. “We need a statement from government that they were aware and have taken action to rectify the flaws.”

CCTV is crucial for deterring and detecting crime and terrorism, tackling anti-social behaviour and “keeping people safe”, the police maintains. Groups that work with victims of crime point out that it can help solve murder, rape, assaults and other serious crimes.

Victim Support Scotland, which helps 120,000 people a year, is concerned that the CCTV network may be failing. “It would be our hope that suitable services can be maintained and updated when required as they provide a vital public service,” says a spokesman for the charity.

Police Scotland describes its report as an “internal police document” which has prompted “ongoing dialogue”. The Scottish Government insists it is adopting a more strategic approach, while local authorities accept that the CCTV network is facing “challenges” to which there is “no quick fix”.

Big Brother is not watching you cartoon | Lorna Miller

Glaring mistakes

In the report Police Scotland proposes an urgent £10 million investment to upgrade out-of-date cameras, which are still 80 per cent analogue, to digital. It envisages a revamped and centrally co-ordinated network with high definition cameras linked to a powerful new police computer system known as i6 and a Scotland-wide digital network.

But this is a prospect that alarms civil liberties campaigners. “Clear lines must be drawn in the digital sand otherwise we are all headed towards a situation where we’re sleepwalking into a surveillance state,” says Pol Clementsmith from the Open Rights Group.

“This document lays bare some glaring mistakes in an ongoing catalogue of errors whereby Police Scotland and a number of local authorities are potentially breaching data protection laws on a daily basis . The majority of CCTV in Scotland is being used to monitor, record and store our every move – yet our police force doesn’t appear to know if what they are doing is legal or illegal.”

Government officials meant to ensure that the more embarrassing sections of the 23-page CCTV report, and most of the financial figures, were kept secret when it was released under freedom of information law. But The Ferret discovered that the redaction was so badly botched that all the hidden text can be easily revealed (see below).

In its full, uncensored form (available exclusively here), the report is damning. “It is clear that the estimated current revenue spend for public space CCTV in Scotland of approximately £11 million does not provide best value for the public purse,” it says.

“There is a clear lack of strategic leadership and accountability for delivering a fully co-ordinated service with a minimum standard in relation to specification of equipment, performance measures, policy and procedures and to compliance with current legislation and guidance.”

The gathering, control, storing and use of CCTV images are covered by the 1998 Data Protection Act, which is designed to ensure personal privacy. This is because, according to the UK Information Commissioner’s Office, the misuse of CCTV can cause “intrusion into the lives of ordinary people as they go about their day to day business”.

The report estimates that four out of every five cameras are still using old-fashioned analogue technology, while the matrices of back-up equipment which control the cameras are still 85 per cent analogue. The major cost of upgrading to digital “poses a major risk to continued operations”, it warns.

Vital components needed to keep the cameras running, “have mostly become obsolete and are not obtainable within the market place any longer,” the report says. Spare parts had to be sourced at inflated prices from second-hand dealers “where there is no guarantee of obtaining the equipment required.”

If components break and can’t be replaced, camera systems will “instantly fail”, the report says. “This is a high risk as should a matrix fail all the cameras linked to the matrix would be inoperable.”

Alongside the £11 million revenue spent on CCTV in Scotland in 2013-14, the report puts the annual capital expenditure at £18.69 million. It suggests that £3.8 million is now needed to update the camera back-up matrices to digital, and £5.75 million to update each and every camera.

But the report points that local authority budgets are being squeezed, and that funding for CCTV could be pulled. “There continues to be no long term funding strategies in place at central or local government level to sustain the existing public space CCTV infrastructure,” it says.

“What has to be recognised is that the funding, no matter which organisation provides, will come from the public purse and the current set up is clearly not effective or efficient and does not provide best value.”

The lack of a single agency in overall control with a clear strategic vision has been a barrier to progress, Police Scotland concludes. It recommends giving statutory responsibility for public space CCTV in Scotland to a public body, without saying which one it should be.

No data protection audits by councils

Police Scotland surveyed 31 of Scotland’s 32 local authorities, and found that only eight produced annual reports on CCTV. Sixteen councils failed to carry out a strategic review of their CCTV facilities, and 12 did not have an internal audit mechanism “to ensure compliance with the requirements of the Data Protection Act”.

The council failures came under fire from campaign groups concerned that privacy law is being breached. “It is concerning to see that so many local authorities have failed to carry out basic checks to see how effective their cameras are,” says Daniel Nesbitt from Big Brother Watch.

“Local authorities should, as a matter of urgency, carry out reviews to ensure that their systems are still of use and within the law. Any cameras that are found to be serving no purpose or that breach data protection law should be removed.”

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) accepts there are problems. No single organisation is responsible, though councils often take the lead in running a system that plays a vital role in keeping communities safe from crime.

“COSLA, Police Scotland and the Scottish Government are aware of the challenges faced by the public space CCTV network, not least the technical improvements that are required in many areas,” says a COSLA spokesman.

“For that reason COSLA has established a working group to identify and address these concerns although we are acutely aware that there is no quick fix.”

According to the assistant commissioner responsible for data protection in Scotland, Ken Macdonald, police forces must comply with the law on CCTV. “This includes using CCTV in a fair and proportionate way that effectively addresses the problems it was deployed for,” he says.

“Organisations should undertake privacy impact assessments to determine the effect CCTV has on people’s privacy and regularly review them. There should also be an effective administrative process in place.”

Too much control by too few

The solution to all the shortfalls, according to the police, is to dramatically beef up the system. As well as upgrading to digital, it wants to improve video compression and storage, adopt more sophisticated video analytics and buy in ultra high definition cameras from Japan.

The report cautions, however, that the greater detail available from high definition cameras has been highlighted by the former Surveillance Camera Commissioner for England and Wales, Andrew Rennison, “as a possible threat to the privacy of individuals”. There is no equivalent commissioner for Scotland.

Police Scotland is introducing a £60 million new computer system called i6 that it promises will “revolutionise” the way it does business. This could process CCTV footage for faster delivery to lawyers and courts, it says.

The report talks about increasing the use of wifi, boosting bandwith and linking CCTV cameras to a developing Scottish area wide digital network known as SWAN. This is a public sector network aimed at supporting “resilient high-volume and high-speed communication”.

But Clementsmith from the Open Rights Group thinks that improving, connecting and centralising the system “will put too much control in the hands of a few individuals”. To avoid the potential for misuse, he suggests having a series of smaller, separate databases instead.

He is calling for “a kind of CCTVCom” to act as an independent regulator for Scotland. “This could keep the police and local authorities on the straight and narrow when it comes to the use of these cameras, how this data is being stored and who is responsible for maintaining and reviewing the systems used,” he says.

According to the Scottish Government, its national strategy for public space CCTV “facilitates a more strategic approach to CCTV development and management for local partners”. The strategy includes guidance and a common set of principles for CCTV operators.

“We encourage police and local authorities to work in partnership to fund and manage CCTV systems in Scotland, for example through the working group chaired by COSLA, which is discussing public space CCTV,” says a government spokeswoman. “The detail contained in the public space CCTV review is a matter for Police Scotland.”

Assistant Chief Constable, Ruaraidh Nicolson, describes the report as an “internal police document” that was written after the creation of Police Scotland “to understand the disparate CCTV provision across Scotland and provide a more corporate approach.” The report was shared with local commanders, the Scottish Government and a national CCTV steering group.

“The purpose of the review was to identify possible improvements and ensure more effective and efficient ways to liaise with and provide information to partner agencies timeously,” says Nicolson.

“It also identified the age of the current equipment and the advances that have been made in technology means that an injection of capital funding will be required to update the ageing systems. Since its completion there has been ongoing dialogue.”

Crucial passages in the internal police report on the problems of CCTV in Scotland are so poorly censored that they can be exposed by simply cutting and pasting them into another document.

The Police Scotland report released under freedom of information law by the Scottish Government has a series of paragraphs and financial details blacked out, or redacted. But the hidden text can all be displayed when the electronic document is transferred into another format.

Amongst freedom of information experts, this is regarded as a schoolboy error. In the past the Ministry of Defence and other Westminster departments have been caught out releasing documents in which redacted sections could be easily revealed.

The Scottish Government justifies keeping sections of the CCTV report secret on the grounds that “disclosure would, or would be likely to, inhibit substantially the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation.”

Ministers and officials need to “have a private space within which to discuss and explore options before the Scottish Government reaches a settled public view,” says a government spokeswoman. It was hence in the public interest to keep certain part of the report secret, she argues.

The Ferret is publishing the redacted and unredacted versions of the report on DocumentCloud below so that readers can make up their own minds. Click on the yellow tabs to reveal the hidden text. We are also publishing detailed maps of CCTV cameras in Edinburgh, Dundee, Glasgow and East Renfrewshire.

This story was published on 22 July 2015 and followed up by The Guardian, the BBC, the Daily Record, The Times, Common Space and others. A related story about cameras worn by police can be read here.

Public space CCTV in Edinburgh

Public space CCTV in Dundee

Public space CCTV in Glasgow and East Renfrewshire

The CCTV maps above include data from Edinburgh City Council, Glasgow Community Safety Services, Dundee City Council, Orkney, East Renfrewshire and The Scottish Borders council. Other Scottish local authorities either declined to supply location details of their cameras in sufficient detail to enable accurate mapping, or they refused to provide this information completely.

If you have data that could help complete the CCTV map of Scotland, please get in touch.

This story was originated, researched, written and published by Ferret journalists working for five days at £110 a day. The cartoon was commissioned for £110.

Cover image: Ian Britton | CC |
Original “Big Brother is not watching you” illustration: Lorna Miller

  1. We have an issue with a neighbour who has covered our property with CCTV cameras , we cannot move outside our property without being followed , we were told by the police it was not their remit and we would need to go through the civil courts to take action , is this true

    1. It depends. There are other laws which might apply (harassment, voyeurism) but they depend on the circumstances. It is not illegal for a person to have CCTV, although a recent European Court decision does say that someone who uses CCTV to film anything other than their property has to comply with the Data Protection Act. This does not make the police wrong, as the Data Protection Act is largely dealt with on a civlil basis, either enforced by the Information Commissioner or the courts.

    2. You are allowed to use cameras to cover your own property however, while there can be a bit of spill on to an adjacent property every effort should be taken by the owner to avoid this. The Data Protection Act does not cover the use of CCTV in private housing property. You have, however, rights of privacy under the Human Rights Act which can be used if you feel the cameras are overly intrusive. The Police should respond if you think you are being spied on and should ask the neighbour to see what area/s the camera/s cover and examples of the recorded images, assuming they are being recorded. You could speak to your neighbour directly and explain your concern and ask to see what the camera can see of your property you may find they see less than you currently think.

  2. Might I suggest that it’s unwise to crow about how easily you overcame an incompetent redaction? This will only encourage officials to do better next time. Your oath to protect your sources should extend to inanimate ones too :)

    Great to see another source of independent journalism doing so well.

  3. Thanks for your comment. We thought carefully about this, and decided on balance to be open about what happened. As soon as we quoted redacted text, people would figure it out anyway.

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