Royal Mile’s Camera Obscura faces ‘spycams’ probe

The oldest purpose-built visitor attraction in Edinburgh is being investigated by a privacy watchdog over new digital “spy cameras”.

Monday, 27th July 2015, 5:05 pm
Powerful viewcams at Camera Obscura on the Royal Mile can be used for snooping. Picture: James Gebbie
Powerful viewcams at Camera Obscura on the Royal Mile can be used for snooping. Picture: James Gebbie

Powerful new “viewcams” installed on top of Camera Obscura on the Royal Mile have come under fire after visitors were apparently urged to use them to snoop on people.

The new high-definition cameras – footage from which can be viewed in an “Eye Spy Edinburgh room” at the popular attraction – allow visitors to peer inside local homes and businesses.

But they have come under fire from politicians and privacy campaigners amid fears that unsuspecting members of the public are being watched closely by thousands of visitors.

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The Information Commissioner’s Office, an independent authority responsible for data privacy, is to investigate whether there has been any breach of the law by the attraction.

Visitors are said to be able to zoom in to see what pedestrians on streets below are looking at on their mobile phones. Others have been able to spot a man asleep on an armchair in his hotel suite, and a woman eating her breakfast in her dressing gown. Two local residents in a top-floor Royal Mile flat have reportedly been forced to keep their blinds closed.

However, the attraction’s management have insisted there have been no complaints since the new equipment went operational last September. The high-definition cameras and video screens were installed to improve the “visitor experience” at the attraction, which has operated for 180 years.

The official website boasts how its “state of the art viewcams allow you to spy on people going about their business”.

It adds: “Our live powerful viewcams are located on the rooftop of the building and give you a panoramic view of the city. With your control you can zoom in and out and look all over town and far beyond.

“Have a closer look at some of the most fascinating architectural details of the city and also a great view of the hills and countryside surrounding Edinburgh. And of course spy on people.”

Emma Carr, director of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: “This is nothing more than a blatant invasion of people’s privacy. CCTV cameras are not toys and should not be trivialised by becoming a tourist attraction. People minding their own business in their own homes simply shouldn’t have to worry about being snooped on by nosy tourists.”

John Lamont, chief whip of the Scottish Conservatives at Holyrood, said: “Camera Obscura may have to rethink, or at least redesign, this latest feature.

A spokesman for the ICO said: “We are looking into Camera Obscura at the moment. We will be checking whether there have been any breaches of the Data Protection Act.”

Andrew Johnson, general manager of Camera Obscura, said: “Since the upgrade, we have hosted our fellow businesses from the Castlehill area and no concerns have been raised over the cameras’ abilities. We have good relations with all neighbours and if any residents or businesses have concerns we will happily meet with them to discuss these. We’ll also cooperate with an investigation and any recommendations.”