New guidance only shows the problems of surveillance oversight. Where are the solutions?

iStock_000016822421MediumFinally clarifying what was already widely accepted, a publication by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has confirmed that surveillance legislation is “complex”. “Surveillance Road Map” (PDF) seeks to set out the responsibilities of each body tasked with overseeing the laws that govern surveillance as well as highlighting some of their overlapping functions.

One of the aims of the guidance is to show members of the public “the avenues available to challenge or complain about any alleged breach of surveillance legislation”. Whilst this is a laudable aim it misses the real problem: that in too many cases roles are unnecessarily duplicated.

One prime example is of the Surveillance Camera Commissioner (SCC) and the ICO. The guidance states that the two bodies’ CCTV Codes of Practice “dovetail”; in fact they repeat each other. There is no reason for both bodies to be responsible for CCTV oversight. As the document points out the SCC has no “complaints handling or enforcement function”. Action should be taken to rectify this, as a result the SCC could be made responsible for a single, enforceable Code of Practice and the ICO would be able to focus more attention on its other functions.

The report also identifies one potential and seven existing bodies that are responsible for overseeing certain pieces of surveillance legislation. Whilst it is certainly useful to see all of the roles explained in one document, there is a deeper issue that the guidance fails to resolve. To the general public the Commissioner system appears confusing and un-transparent meaning that it is vital that the occupants of these positions begin to properly communicate their roles and their findings to the public. This is something that has been called for the Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, who argued that there should be an “overhaul” in how the system functions. The Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) (PDF) also singled out the Intelligence Services Commissioner (ISC) and the Interception of Communications Commissioner (IOCC) for particular criticism saying that it was “unacceptable that there is so much confusion” around their work.

HASC also identified another weakness that should be considered when addressing the Commissioner system: the level of scrutiny that Commissioners are able to carry out is severely limited as they are usually only part time and supported by a small number of staff members. One example that is quoted is that the ISC examines less than 10% of warrants that allow surveillance of members of the public. The committee recommended that the resources of the Commissioner be expanded to allow scrutiny of around 50% of warrants. This is something that Big Brother Watch fully supports.

When considering the roles these bodies play it is hard to disagree with David Davis MP who said the Commissioners were “good people doing impossible jobs”. No amount of well-intentioned guidance is going to change the fact that the Commissioners are all in part time roles that often overlap, supported by a very small staffs and tasked with overseeing a mass of complex legislation. Unless real change is effected to improve their effectiveness and help them to properly communicate with the public there will be no improvement in the UK’s surveillance transparency. Something that is needed now more than ever before.