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Privacy warning over growing use of body-worn cameras

Hundreds of body-worn cameras are being used by council workers across Scotland, even though few local authorities have considered the privacy implications of using them.

A new report by campaign group Big Brother Watch reveals that Scottish councils have spent nearly £300,000 on purchasing hundreds of body worn cameras for use by staff carrying out their daily duties.

Yet, the civil liberties group claims that the law enforcement tool is being used for increasingly trivial purposes. It argues such uses are disproportionate and may represent a potential breach of the privacy of ordinary members of the public.

Data compiled from multiple freedom of information requests indicates that Scottish councils are using the tiny cameras across all sorts of services.

Housing officers, parking attendants, harbour workers, dog wardens, and even officers responsible for detecting internal fraud, have all been equipped with the cameras in different parts of the country.

The report names Renfrewshire Council among the top 10 UK councils for spending the most on body worn cameras. It has spent nearly £37,000 on buying the devices. Meanwhile, Dundee and Aberdeen city council are named in the top 10 UK local authorities for the highest numbers of cameras in use.

Dundee City Council has purchased 67 body-worn cameras, the highest number in Scotland. Dundee is also the most frequent user of Direct Surveillance powers in Scotland too.

However, only four Scottish councils – Aberdeen, Perth and Kinross, South Lanarkshire and West Lothian – have formal privacy impact assessments on file that informs the use of body worn cameras.

Renate Samson, chief executive of Big Brother Watch, said that she feared councils were now starting to use the cameras for “fatuous reasons,” such as, “watching how people walk their dog or park their car.”

Although she acknowledged that body-worn cameras may have a role in situations where council staff feel physically threatened, she added: “they’re not tools to monitor people in order to issue fines.”

The civil liberties group says in its report that it is, “concerned that the rush to use body worn cameras by local authorities is not being scrutinised closely enough.

“When we consider that many councils have a poor track record of using heavy handed surveillance tactics and are often lackadaisical with their approach to protecting personal data, scrutiny of new capabilities should be a number one priority.”

The Ferret has previously reported that a number of Scottish local authorities have been criticised for breaching privacy rules and the over zealous use of surveillance powers to snoop on dog walkers.

There is evidence that body worn video cameras may provide benefits to both the public and public servants in some circumstances.

In his last annual report, the Office of the Surveillance Camera Commissioner notes that body worn camera use is becoming increasingly widespread among local authorities and police forces.

He highlighted research undertaken by the Met Police that suggested officers wearing body worn cameras were more accountable, whilst complaints dropped and members of the public felt that it would improve the quality of evidence gathered by officers.

Nevertheless, the Surveillance Camera Commissioner, whose formal remit does not extend to Scotland, also highlights his concerns that public bodies, such as local authorities, are using the equipment without first consulting with the public, or putting in place proper privacy impact assessments and effective management arrangements.

The Ferret contacted COSLA – the body that ‘represents the view of Scottish Local Authorities’ – for a response to the issues raised above but it declined to provide any comment.

A spokesman for Dundee City Council, the Scottish local authority that has deployed the greatest number of these cameras, said: “The implications of using of body mounted cameras are always considered and as well as ensuring that people are aware they are being filmed, footage is only used for statutory purposes.”

Top Photo credit: Sanderflight | CC

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