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Waters, Nigel; Greenleaf, Graham --- "Visual surveillance update" [1996] PrivLawPRpr 50; (1996) 3(5) Privacy Law & Policy Reporter 95

Visual surveillance update

Nigel Waters and Graham Greenleaf

More street surveillance

The value of video surveillance cameras in public places around Australia continues to be hotly debated. Following the publication in the Reporter of my paper, `Street surveillance and privacy' (3 PLPR 48), delivered originally to the NZ Privacy Issues Forum, there was a wave of interest from radio stations in all states and territories. This publicity provided an opportunity to repeat my call for more open and public justification for surveillance schemes, and for operational safeguards. It was also the beginning of a response to that call, with more details of existing and proposed schemes being revealed, and the sponsors of the schemes being asked to justify them.

Among the plans brought to light were the proposed installation of cameras in Hobart and Darwin, and extensions of existing surveillance in Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide. Perth City Council made public figures on different types of offence recorded on video during the last year, but with no indication of outcomes or comparisons with other areas. During August, the Alice Springs city council debated a camera proposal but rejected it on cost grounds. The ACT Legislative Assembly Committee considering the installation of cameras in the Civic area of Canberra held a number of hearings, and was due to take oral evidence from the Privacy Commissioner on 2 September.

In response to inquiries from the Sydney Daily Telegraph, the mayor of Fairfield City Council, Maria Heggie, defended the value of the camera surveillance in Cabramatta, saying that experience in Queensland and Britain had shown `a dramatic drop in crime', but I have yet to see any convincing evidence of success. In fact, reports of further academic and official studies from the UK obtained by the Privacy Commissioner's office continue to cast doubt on the value, and cost effectiveness, of camera surveillance. Of particular concern are misleading claims about the low cost of surveillance schemes, which do not take account of the high labour cost of monitoring and response which are needed if schemes are going to be of significant value. Reports of studies continue to suggest a displacement rather than reduction of crime and vandalism, and point to serious logistical difficulties in ensuring adequate response even where cameras are being monitored.

It will be interesting to see what the ACT Committee makes of the evidence it is gathering. Similar public debates about the pros and cons of camera surveillance schemes are urgently needed wherever this dramatic change in the way we live has been introduced or is being proposed.

Nigel Waters, Head of Privacy Branch, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

NSW to review all surveillance laws

In another encouraging development, NSW Attorney-General Jeff Shaw (at the suggestion of the NSW Privacy Committee) has given the NSW Law Reform Commission a broad reference to review the law concerning the overt and covert use of visual and aural surveillance devices. The Commission has not yet formed a division to conduct the inquiry.

The Commission's reference says it is to inquire into and report on:

The Commission is required to have regard to:

The Commission will also have to take into account the NSW Government's proposed Privacy and Data Protection Bill (see 3 PLPR 17), as its information privacy principles will affect the collection and use of information by surveillance technologies. It will also have to take into account the review of workplace visual surveillance currently being conducted by the NSW Department of Industrial Relations.

Another matter which the Commission will have to consider is the NSW Police Service `Guidelines for Investigation of Potential for, and Implementation of, Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) by Local Councils and Shires', issued by the Police Services Taskforce on CCTV in Public Places earlier this year. Although the Police Service has issued the Guidelines, the Minister for Police has advised the NSW Privacy Committee that the Police Service will not be implementing new CCTV projects in public places.

One of the more exotic `related matters' which the Commission may need to consider is the extent to which the Listening Devices Act might be relevant to surveillance of internet communications once they are outside the reach of the Telecommunications (Interception) Act 1979 (Cth). This could be relevant (for example) to e-mail or web caches stored on the recipient's hard disk but accessible to system administrators of an employer's local area network.

In making this important reference, Mr Shaw has signalled his seriousness in delivering a `two stage' package of privacy laws. After the need for general data protection laws covering both private and public sectors, visual surveillance is the area next most in need of legislative control.

Graham Greenleaf, General Editor.


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