For five years I chaired the Edinburgh Community Safety Partnership, a body which brought together various public sector agencies to address issues including antisocial behaviour and aspects of crime. In those five years, through innovative partnership working, we managed to reduce crime and antisocial behaviour by an astonishing rate. We did so without any significant diminution in our traditional freedoms.
In that time we made use of CCTV and to a limited extent found it of assistance in areas where there were hotspots for antisocial behaviour or crime. We also found a small number of mobile units useful when policing events such as big football matches.
The proposal to review the operation of CCTV in Edinburgh should have been welcomed as a chance to discuss the efficacy of the camera networks, whether the location of cameras remains justified, whether there is a case for removal or relocation and, critically, what safeguards we need.
Instead, we are seeing proposals to centralise the network and the touted use of controversial facial recognition software all without proper public debate and scrutiny.
When I asked only the other day about what consultation there would be, I was told there would be none per se but there would be a solitary workshop for stakeholders. Frankly this isn’t good enough.
In the 1960s prime minister Harold Wilson carefully defined what could and couldn’t be subject to surveillance. It used to be that UK government ministers had to sanction many aspects of surveillance. The Blair government eroded many of those safeguards and now a range of relatively junior bureaucrats have the power to train their cameras, tap our phones or spy on our PCs at the drop of a hat.
I have never bought the argument if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear. I have no truck with those who break our laws or cause public nuisance but I do think that the majority have a right to walk around our home city without cameras being trained on our every movement.
The UK has a long tradition of policing by consent, but here in Scotland many of our traditional freedoms seem to be being eroded or compromised in a very casual fashion.
My Liberal Democrat colleague at Holyrood, Alison McInnes, recently unearthed the fact that there had been more than 400 instances of the use of facial recognition from CCTV by Police Scotland and again there has been no proper public debate before this has happened. This comes on the back of the drift last year towards armed police officers with a number of officers carrying firearms while on routine duties – again without public debate and certainly without public consent.
CCTV is a very sensitive area of the council’s work and any major changes such as those being mooted should be discussed and debated publicly and decisions made in an open and transparent way. We must know what safeguards are being put in place to protect the privacy of the vast majority of us who are doing nothing wrong.
The prospect of Edinburgh being turned into a version of The Truman Show is chilling. It is ironic that the council wants to spy more on us but seems reluctant to be transparent with us about its intentions.
Paul Edie is Liberal Democrat group leader on Edinburgh City Council and councillor for Corstorphine and Murrayfield