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January 13, 2011

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‘Secure by default’ in the age of converged security

CCTV monitoring: the ethical issues

The UK is acknowledged as one of the world’s foremost users of CCTV. Members of the British public are well accustomed to seeing CCTV cameras on every street corner, and the phrase ‘Big Brother State’ is often associated with the UK.

Recently, programmes which allow those same members of the public to receive payment incentives in exchange for monitoring CCTV have been put into practice, particularly in small-to-medium enterprises which may not be able to afford the expenditure of a dedicated CCTV operator.

This raises important ethical questions with regards to privacy and Data Protection, only serving to reinforce the seemingly voyeuristic nature of national surveillance.

Infringement on set guidelines

The topic has been widely scrutinised in the industry, with some arguing that these ‘public monitoring’ services infringe on guidelines set out by the Information Commissioner’s Office (which require that CCTV cameras and footage should only be used and accessed by appropriately trained staff).

The counter argument, however, suggests that paying members of the public to monitor CCTV is a viable method of cutting costs, particularly for smaller businesses.

Authorisation to view and monitor CCTV footage should be a key concern for all businesses, and it’s totally understandable that the general public has strong opinions around the protection of sensitive images which record their day-to-day activities.

Background checks (such as those conducted by the Criminal Record Bureau) are often carried out by responsible business owners to determine the background of employees before allowing them to access this personal CCTV data. Not only does this help to ensure that data is adequately protected, but these measures also encourage the public to view surveillance cameras as valuable security tools which are well regulated and trustworthy – in turn dispelling the ‘Big Brother’ image.

Alternative technology-based solutions

Rather than paying members of the public to monitor CCTV, businesses unable to budget for specialist security staff for whatever reason can also opt to deploy technology solutions which meet business and security requirements while avoiding the ethical dilemma posed by unregulated CCTV monitoring.

Remote monitoring platforms, for example, can work in conjunction with mobile devices such as the iPhone and iPad, allowing authorised users to monitor CCTV data both on-site and remotely.

The images can be viewed either as a live stream or as archived footage, and the recorded images may be simply extracted and sent via e-mail if suspicious activities do occur.

Automatic notifications can also be used to alert the user of security incidents, negating the need for round-the-clock monitoring of CCTV content and providing added flexibility for the end user.

Method of public protection

If general members of the public are allowed to access CCTV footage in exchange for cash, surveillance monitoring will maintain its reputation as invasive and voyeuristic rather than being viewed as a method of public protection (which is, of course, the primary function of any CCTV platform).

The surveillance industry has faced up to scrutiny since its inception, and this will continue unless access to sensitive image data is adequately controlled and protected.

Only when businesses work to improve monitoring procedures can those fears be allayed, and intelligent CCTV monitoring systems – both in the form of traditional and mobile platforms – can allow organisations to achieve security objectives within strict budget outlines and without the need to resort to inefficient and unethical practices.

Iain Cameron is managing director of Mirasys UK

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