New CCTV Code of Practice: surveillance and the protection of freedoms

Surveillance of the covert and digital variety has been dominating the news of late. The legal contours of the practices leaked by Edward Snowden (the NSA’s obtaining of internet metadata) and covered by The Guardian (most recently, GCHQ’s monitoring of certain communications of ‘friendly’ foreign allies) may be matters of some debate.

In the meantime, the legal contours of a more overt and physical variety of surveillance – CCTV – have been somewhat clarified.

Panopticon indeed.

As its name suggests, the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 expressed the incoming Coalition Government’s commitment to keeping in check the state’s surveillance of ordinary citizens. By that Act (sections 29-36), the Home Secretary was to present to Parliament a Code of Practice governing the use of surveillance camera systems including CCTV and Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR). Following a consultation exercise – the response to which can be read here – the Home Secretary has now done so. The Code was laid before Parliament on 4 June 2013. A draft order (the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 (Code of Practice for Surveillance Camera Systems and Specification of Relevant Authorities) Order 2013) is currently being considered by Parliament’s Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

Pending its coming into force, Panopticon summarises the key features of the new Code.

To whom does the Code apply?

The Code imposes duties on ‘relevant authorities’, which are those listed at section 33(5) of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 – in the main, local authorities and policing authorities.

The draft order proposes to add the following to the list of relevant authorities:

(a) The chief constable of the British Transport Police;

(b) The Serious Organised Crime Agency;

(c) The chief constable of the Civil Nuclear Constabulary; and

(d) The chief constable of the Ministry of Defence Police.

The Code recognises that concern about the use of surveillance cameras often extends beyond these sorts of full-blooded ‘public’ authorities. It recognises that the list of relevant authorities may need to be expanded in future to encompass shopping centres, sports grounds, schools, transport centres and the like.

For now, however, only those listed as ‘relevant authorities’ are subject to the duties imposed by the Code. Others who use such surveillance systems are ‘encouraged’ to abide by the Code.

What duty is imposed by the Code?

The Code imposes a ‘have regard to’ duty. In other words, relevant authorities are required to have regard to the Code when exercising any of the functions to which the Code relates. As regards its legal effects:

“A failure on the part of any person to act in accordance with any provision of this code does not of itself make that person liable to criminal or civil proceedings. This code is, however, admissible in evidence in criminal or civil proceedings, and a court or tribunal may take into account a failure by a relevant authority to have regard to the code in determining a question in any such proceedings” (paragraph 1.16).

It may well be that the Code also weighs heavily with the ICO in its consideration of any complaints about the use of surveillance cameras breaching the DPA 1998.

Remember that the Home Office Code sits alongside and does not replace the ICO’s CCTV Code of Practice.

What types of activity are covered by the new Code?

Relevant authorities must have regard to the Code ‘when exercising any of the functions to which the Code relates’. This encompasses the operation and use of and the processing data derived from surveillance camera systems in public places in England and Wales, regardless of whether there is any live viewing or recording of images and associated data.

The Code does not apply to covert surveillance, as defined under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.

What about third party contractors?

Where a relevant authority instructs or authorises a third party to use surveillance cameras, that third party is not under the ‘have regard to’ duty imposed by the Code. That duty does, however, apply to the relevant authority’s arrangements.

By paragraph 1.11:

“The duty to have regard to this code also applies when a relevant authority uses a third party to discharge relevant functions covered by this code and where it enters into partnership arrangements. Contractual provisions agreed after this code comes into effect with such third party service providers or partners must ensure that contractors are obliged by the terms of the contract to have regard to the code when exercising functions to which the code relates.”

The approach

The guiding philosophy of the Code is one of surveillance by consent:

 “The government considers that wherever overt surveillance in public places is in pursuit of a legitimate aim and meets a pressing need, any such surveillance should be characterised as surveillance by consent, and such consent on the part of the community must be informed consent and not assumed by a system operator…. [legitimacy] in the eyes of the public is based upon a general consensus of support that follows from transparency about their powers, demonstrating integrity in exercising those powers and their accountability for doing so” (paragraph 1.5).

In a nutshell, the expectation is this:

“The decision to use any surveillance camera technology must, therefore, be consistent with a legitimate aim and a pressing need. Such a legitimate aim and pressing need must be articulated clearly and documented as the stated purpose for any deployment. The technical design solution for such a deployment should be proportionate to the stated purpose rather than driven by the availability of funding or technological innovation. Decisions over the most appropriate technology should always take into account its potential to meet the stated purpose without unnecessary interference with the right to privacy and family life. Furthermore, any deployment should not continue for longer than necessary” (paragraph 2.4).

The guiding principles

The Code then sets out 12 guiding principles which systems operators should follow:

(1) Use of a surveillance camera system must always be for a specified purpose which is in pursuit of a legitimate aim and necessary to meet an identified pressing need.

(2) The use of a surveillance camera system must take into account its effect on individuals and their privacy, with regular reviews to ensure its use remains justified.

(3) There must be as much transparency in the use of a surveillance camera system as possible, including a published contact point for access to information and complaints.

(4) There must be clear responsibility and accountability for all surveillance camera system activities including images and information collected, held and used.

(5) Clear rules, policies and procedures must be in place before a surveillance camera system is used, and these must be communicated to all who need to comply with them.

(6) No more images and information should be stored than that which is strictly required for the stated purpose of a surveillance camera system, and such images and information should be deleted once their purposes have been discharged.

(7) Access to retained images and information should be restricted and there must be clearly defined rules on who can gain access and for what purpose such access is granted; the disclosure of images and information should only take place when it is necessary for such a purpose or for law enforcement purposes.

(8) Surveillance camera system operators should consider any approved operational, technical and competency standards relevant to a system and its purpose and work to meet and maintain those standards.

(9) Surveillance camera system images and information should be subject to appropriate security measures to safeguard against unauthorised access and use.

(10) There should be effective review and audit mechanisms to ensure legal requirements, policies and standards are complied with in practice, and regular reports should be published.

(11) When the use of a surveillance camera system is in pursuit of a legitimate aim, and there is a pressing need for its use, it should then be used in the most effective way to support public safety and law enforcement with the aim of processing images and information of evidential value.

(12) Any information used to support a surveillance camera system which compares against a reference database for matching purposes should be accurate and kept up to date.

Points to note

The Code then fleshes out those guiding principles in more detail. Here are some notable points:

Such systems “should not be used for other purposes that would not have justified its establishment in the first place” (paragraph 3.1.3).

“People do, however, have varying and subjective expectations of privacy with one of the variables being situational. Deploying surveillance camera systems in public places where there is a particularly high expectation of privacy, such as toilets or changing rooms, should only be done to address a particularly serious problem that cannot be addressed by less intrusive means” (paragraph 3.2.1).

“Any proposed deployment that includes audio recording in a public place is likely to require a strong justification of necessity to establish its proportionality. There is a strong presumption that a surveillance camera system must not be used to record conversations as this is highly intrusive and unlikely to be justified” (paragraph 3.2.2).

“Any use of facial recognition or other biometric characteristic recognition systems needs to be clearly justified and proportionate in meeting the stated purpose, and be suitably validated. It should always involve human intervention before decisions are taken that affect an individual adversely” (paragraph 3.3.3).

“This [the requirement to publicise as much as possible about the use of a system] is not to imply that the exact location of surveillance cameras should always be disclosed if to do so would be contrary to the interests of law enforcement or national security” (paragraph 3.3.6).

“It is important that there are effective safeguards in place to ensure the forensic integrity of recorded images and information and its usefulness for the purpose for which it is intended to be used. Recorded material should be stored in a way that maintains the integrity of the image and information, with particular importance attached to ensuring that meta data (e.g. time, date and location) is recorded reliably, and compression of data does not reduce its quality” (paragraph 4.12.2).


The Surveillance Camera Commissioner is a statutory appointment made by the Home Secretary under section 34 of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. The Commissioner has no enforcement or inspection powers. However, in encouraging compliance with the Code, he “should consider how best to ensure that relevant authorities are aware of their duty to have regard for the Code and how best to encourage its voluntary adoption by other operators of surveillance camera systems” (paragraph 5.3). The Commissioner is/is to be assisted by a non-statutory Advisory Council with its own specialist subgroups.

Given the limited remit of the Surveillance Camera Commissioner, it may be that the Code shows its teeth more effectively in complaints to the ICO and/or the courts.

Robin Hopkins