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CCTV - Closed Circuit Television -
Maybe we need some rules

Richard C. Pitt

Britain has millions of them, yet they didn't stop the bombers of 07/07/2005. They may, however, have kept others from following in their footsteps.

I don't know about where you live, but here in the Vancouver area they're talking about putting cameras on all the buses (amongst other places) and we've just had a murder all but solved by the use of video from a commercial camera in a parking lot.

I see cameras at intersections, on highways, in back alleys, and in stores. The problem is I don't know whether it's my car being noticed to trigger the lights, or the camera was set up to steal my PIN number.

CCTV cameras can be useful, but they can also be intrusive and even dangerous to individual freedom and security. Maybe we need some regulations that give we who are the subjects of the cameras some information on their use.

I've written on this subject before (Digital Rag June, 2002) but, while that was after 09/11, their application to thwart terrorism was not at the forefront of the security mind; or at least not publicly so. Since 07/07 this has changed radically.

The CCTV cameras didn't stop the explosions - but they may have stopped further ones. This is what it is all about. There are other, related technologies (recognition of whether a package is left in a public place))) that may help, but it is the actual cameras that provided many of the clues used to track down where the bombers came from and possibly stopped others from following in their tracks.

On the other hand, a couple of days ago I noted (after I'd keyed in my PIN) that the security camera over the cash register at the Home Depot store I was in had an excellent view of not only the area around two cash registers, but also the keypad on their cash-card system. Was the tape on this camera viewed either in real time, or regularly by some security guard who also had access to the account number my card scanned in? How long were the images stored before being overwritten? I really wanted to know!

So, if we presume that the information that cameras have provided in specific instances has stopped other crimes from being perpetrated, then (some) CCTV cameras save lives. But there are so many others that simply show actions for some unknown audience, and which may or may not record them for some period of time, we really need some way of knowing who to talk to about what may be severe personal invasions of privacy at minimum, and potentially invasive and illegal actions at worst.

In case you haven't realized it yet, I've been thinking on and off about this for several years now. I keep coming back to the notion that "what we need is a solution that both the police (security agencies) and the privacy advocates can live with" (from my June 2002 article)

Back then I proposed a solution that roughly equated a camera like the memory and notebook of a police officer - with an in-built facility to "forget" over time but potential to be noted "forever".

Today I'll settle for just knowing more detail about what is going on behind the camera.

What I propose today is more like a license plate for each camera, with some method of learning more about what is done with the images the camera takes so I can make an informed decision about whether I want to be near it, and know who is accountable or who will intervene (the law?) if things are not as they are "registered". In effect I propose a function of government that is akin to the licensing of a car/truck, along with at least a broad categorization that the public would be able to understand easily when near the camera and with no other references.

I propose that each and every CCTV camera have attached to it (or close by and obviously associated with it), a plaque visible and readable by anyone with "normal" eyesight within its immediate vicinity that tells a minimum about what the camera does, who might be watching it, and how long a recording of its output might normally be retained.

The format of such a plaque is up for debate, but I suggest 3 things:

  • A "type" code with information on broad category of what the camera is for, whether or not it is monitored in real time, and how long images are normally saved
  • A URL for "more info"
  • A unique registration ID assigned by the local "competent authority"

    The "Type" code should embody at least minimal information on what the camera is used for, whether it is monitored by a human in real time, and how long in broad terms the images are normally stored. Something like BB4H:

  • B - camera is for a public industrial process (e.g. traffic control)
  • B - camera is not monitored by a human in real time (the intersection circuitry figures out where cars are)
  • 4h - images are normally kept for 4 hours unless subpoenaed by police (the local storage is overwritten after this time)

    Other categories for camera type might be:

  • A - camera is for a process not normally anywhere near the public (camera on a wood processing line for example)
  • C - camera is on private property for security purposes
  • D - camera is on public property for security purposes

    Other categories for camera monitoring might be:

  • A - camera is used for real time process control not expected to impose on privacy in normal use
  • C - camera is monitored randomly by a human
  • D - camera is monitored in real time by a human

    And for image retention:

  • 0 - not retained at all
  • xM - retained for x minutes
  • xD - retained for x days
  • 999 - retained indefinitely

    The URL should be somewhat standardized in its format (e.g. or, etc.), and the page it points to should also have a minimum information format that should be mandated. This probably should include information about the agency or business that owns the camera, who might monitor it (an employee or contractor or security company or the police for example) and some information on what its capabilities are - color/BW, resolution, lens, fixed or moveable and an indication of the area it covers.

    Additional information might include time-delayed or real-time feed or sample stills.

    The whole idea behind such a plaque and information system is to balance the loss of privacy with some semblance of informed consent.

    If I am walking down a street and encounter a police officer or security guard, I have the expectation that my presence may be noted in their own memory or their official log if I fit some criterium known only to them. On the other hand, the fact that they are in a uniform and obviously "part of the security establishment" and identified by their uniform design, identifying badges, identity number or name badge gives me some semblance that there is professionalism behind whatever note they might take of me - and in fact in most places, some government regulation and overseeing of that professionalism. This is why we require such people have such identification.

    Is there any reason why cameras should be treated any differently??

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