Thursday, March 30, 2006

What's That On The Side Of Your Head?

Today was the first time that a "headcam" - a camera that can be worn on the side of your head (much like sticking a pencil behind your ear!) - has been used to gain a criminal conviction by police. Devon and Cornwall police successfully captured images of an abusive woman when they were called to a fight in a block of flats.

This obviously raises important civil liberties issues. We already live in a world where a large amount of our movements are tracked digitally one way or another. Indeed, I've worked out that going around Oxford, there will be very little time when I am outside of my own room when my whereabouts are not traceable. Should police be allowed to use camera surveillance as part of their everyday business - or is it an infringement on our civil liberties?

The question is slightly clouded by the fact that there is very little that can be seen by the camera that would be outside of the policeman's field of vision. If he is doing his job properly, then it should be little more than an aide memoire. The real problem, therefore, is to do with the storage of data. The bobby on the beat will now be able to keep a full record of what goes on. This is something that is of great potential use, for example, in tracking animal rights protestors in Oxford - building up a pattern of when and where they protest.

That is the real problem with the storage of data in this way - it isn't simply a supplement to other means of data gathering, and far more reliable to boot. There needs to be serious guarantees about the way that the data is stored, how long it is kept for, in what circumstances it may be used. Surveillance powers should come under different remits.

I find it hard, however, to criticise its use outright - despite considering myself deeply committed to civil liberties. The use of these cameras, to my mind, is justified when police will find themselves in a situation where they need to exercise restraint, but would otherwise have difficulty proving that it was justifiable. Indeed, that was the situation used with the evidence for the conviction today. There's a danger that it becomes something the police use only to help them out, of course - but if it is used not as a general tool, but as a tool to provide a reliable set of eyes when police are called to potentially violent incidents, it may work. That said, its use would have to be tightly controlled.