23 May 2022

Guest blog: Future gazing: are we ready for buildings to “see” us?

Guest blog by Dr Sue Chadwick, Strategic Planning Advisor at Pinsent Masons LLP

On 22nd April the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner wrote to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities the Minister for the Cabinet Office and the Cabinet Secretary with his concerns about how surveillance camera systems are used in public spaces.  This was a timely reminder that making the most of emerging technologies depends on developing public trust as well as technical knowhow.

The benefits of sensory technology

Automated Facial recognition or AFR is the primary example of a sensory technology that offers multiple benefits – most obviously by law enforcement agencies to reduce crime and create safer places, but also by public and private sector to manage crowds and facilitate access to large scale events.  Other sensory technologies can be used in a range of beneficial ways by the public sector: Dorset Council is using IoT devices in homes to assess support needs for vulnerable residents, the London Cross River Partnership is using  Sensors  to evaluate transport management measures and the City of London Corporation is promoting “24/7 monitored and recorded CCTV with motion detection, thermal imaging and random sweep patterns” to help with suicide prevention in its latest planning guidance.

The challenges of sensory technology

As with all technology, there are risks alongside the opportunities – primarily the rapid development and deployment of innovative technology without parallel curation of public trust. There are also legal and reputational risks, beginning with human rights.  In his letters, Professor Sampson made the important point that the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights “apply to all States and to all business enterprises regardless of their size, sector, location, ownership and structure” and the Court of Appeal has already ruled that the use of facial recognition technology by South Wales police both engaged and infringed Article 8: the right to respect for private and family life.   Equalities are another risk area, because where sensory technology relies on algorithmic analytics, it can replicate or even amplify existing societal biases, as is recognised in a recent report from the Ada Lovelace Institute: AI-driven biometry and the infrastructures of everyday life  Finally, Article 22 has special rules for decisions made on a fully automated basis without any human involvement which must be considered in any context where AI is used, especially if combined with biometric technologies.

Responding to the challenges

Professor Sampson’s letters promised that a new Surveillance Camera Code of Practice would soon be published. We should all be on the lookout for it, and in the meantime  public sector bodies could:

  • Update current governance arrangements to ensure that constitutions, standing orders, schemes of delegation and decision templates include consideration of the legal and ethical impacts of sensory technology including specifically compliance with the Existing Guidance
  • Use the procurement process as an ethical gateway to ensure that the right questions are asked – and answered – building in the Government Guidelines for AI procurement
  • Use appropriate risk assessment tools when making decisions to procure or use new technologies.  Most local authorities will already be familiar with Equalities Impact Assessments and Data Protection Impact Assessments but there are some useful tools emerging such as the  Government’s algorithmic transparency standard  and the new ICO AI and data protection risk toolkit

As Professor Sampson said: “The more that surveillance camera systems can do, the more important it will be to reassure people about what they are not doing, whether that is in our streets, our sports grounds or our schools” There is a real opportunity for local authorities to lead the way on this.

Dr Sue Chadwick, Strategic Planning Advisor at Pinsent Masons LLP.

Sue specialises in digital planning and data ethics in the built environment. She recently completed a Research Fellowship with the Open Data Institute: Digital planning and its implications Aug 2021 with a particular focus on Plantech and Proptech issues. She is a member of Brent Council Data Ethics Board, Profusion Data Ethics Advisory Board and Chair of the RED Foundation Data Ethics Steering Group.

 Local Public Services Innovation: Creating a catalyst for change



techUK, in collaboration with its Local Public Services Committee, has published a new report making the case for enhanced digital innovation adoption across the UK’s local public services to improve citizens’ lives. The report, ‘Local Public Services Innovation: Creating a catalyst for change


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