Privacy

Big Brother can’t prevent nosy neighbours

The UK's CCTV czar should focus on cutting state surveillance and butt out of our backyards.

It’s an odd post, but the UK government watchdog role of surveillance camera commissioner was born out of good intentions. It emerged from the passing of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, which aimed to fulfil the Lib-Con coalition government’s pledge to roll back its CCTV use. The newly appointed commissioner, however, seems to be getting carried away.

Not content with enforcing the code of conduct released last year by the first commissioner, Andrew Rennison, to offer guidance on CCTV usage to government institutions, the new ‘CCTV czar’, Tony Porter, a retired senior police leader, is now drawing up official guidance on the domestic use of surveillance equipment.

The new code is reportedly in response to a ‘surge in complaints’ from people claiming their neighbours are spying into their houses and gardens, a trend that has been enabled by the falling price of CCTV equipment in recent years. ‘You could say it’s part of the code, but you could also say it’s common decency’, Porter told the Daily Mail. ‘If there’s absolutely no requirement to impact on other people’s privacy then, frankly, you shouldn’t – it’s wrong.’

On the face of it, it’s hard to disagree with Porter. Neighbours should have enough respect for their mutual privacy to feel ashamed at the idea of monitoring each other’s activities on CCTV. If this an increasing trend, then something is certainly going awry.

But that is a big ‘if’. The Mail only offers one example of neighbours doing this. And given the relatively recent availability of the technology, a ‘surge’ in the percentage of complaints is perhaps unsurprising when starting from a very low base.

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However, even if nosy neighbours are abandoning their age-old binoculars-through-top-floor-windows or crack-in-the-curtain methods of snooping in favour of hi-tech equipment, what business is it of a government watchdog to draw up a code for people to adhere to? In intervening in this debate, Porter should have stopped at an appeal to ‘common decency’, and backed away from the idea that he is uniquely positioned to map out for us what such decency amounts to.

Unfortunately, it appears that this move into offering codes telling people how to be good neighbours is, in part, a result of lobbying from civil-liberties groups. Big Brother Watch (BBW), which has done much commendable work lobbying for civil liberties in the UK, has in this instance been calling for Big Brother to have greater powers to control private usage of CCTV. In a critique of the surveillance camera commissioner’s code last year, Big Brother Watch claimed ‘the situation of private cameras not being subject to regulation, with the only power available to the police to prosecute for harassment, is unsustainable as the number of people using them increases… The regulator needs real powers to enforce the rules and the code should apply to every CCTV camera, irrespective of who is operating it.’ 

Surely the solution to the Big Brother Society can’t be found through a further extension of state powers to dictate who uses CCTV and for what reason? Should the police be granted powers to check our computers to see whether we are legitimately using equipment? CCTV technology shouldn’t be fetishised here: a clear distinction should be made between state surveillance - which the state should indeed roll back - and civil use of surveillance equipment. It may indeed be wrong for a neighbour to focus a camera on someone else’s backyard, but this should be a matter for these individuals (and perhaps the local community) to resolve, not one for the authorities.

These civil matters unquestionably need to be discussed, and a new etiquette established in response to new technological developments. As Google Glasses go on sale across the world, allowing people to record everything they see, a debate needs to be had around the extent to which we allow people to use technology to monitor our public and private spaces. Any official codes from the state’s surveillance camera commissioner, however, will be as unhelpful in this process as they are unwelcome.

Patrick Hayes is a columnist for spiked.

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