Your Corner Shop Sucks at Spying On You

Individual CCTV carriers rarely know how to deal with your right to information.

Markus Lust

Markus Lust

Photo via

At the end of the 18th century, philosopher Jeremy Bentham developed the famous Panopticon: a design for prisons, in which all cells were arranged in a circle and visible from a central monitoring unit. Thus, the thinking goes, the detainees never really knew when they were being observed. Which meant that a precautionary, corrective effect on their behaviour was expected – even if the guards didn’t do their job properly.

Today prisons are rectangular again, but the idea of an omnipresent surveillant has reached far beyond prison borders and into all areas of our lives. But there is also some good news, even if the world around us is growing more paranoid. In the United Kingdom, any citizen has the right to know when a particular CCTV camera is pointed at them, what exactly it is detecting and who is keeping the recordings, for how long and for what purpose. You can also request footage of yourself and get a copy within 40 days.

In theory, these laws are there to prevent the abuse of power by unauthorised persons, while maximising your sense of security. The reality is a tiny bit different: in the same way few of us who are under surveillance know about our right to information, the supervisors are seldom aware of their obligation to provide the information. Sociologist Robert Rothman of the University of Vienna has been studying the right to information in video surveillance systems. I called him up for a chat.

VICE: How does an information request work in practice – especially when it comes to cameras installed by major corporations and banks? Who can I contact if I want to put in a request?
Robert Rothmann: In principle, the request works the same everywhere. You need a passport and then you go looking for the responsible person. Then you refer to the Data Protection Act. It says that individuals have the right to know who processed what data about them, for what purpose and to whom else the data was relayed.

What makes these requests fail in practice?
It often starts with the delivery of the document to a responsible person. Statements like: "We cannot name the person responsible," "I am not allowed to give you any information on this," or, "Only the police are permitted to view the footage." Even the security staff in the control room right in front of the surveillance monitors can assert that they "have nothing to do with the video surveillance", and pass you on to someone else. In some cases, I was bounced back and forth between 14 different contacts.

Is this because of ignorance or is it a philosophical position – a general statement about how the monitors view their own work?
On the one hand, the right is simply denied. The right to information is not anchored in the minds of the staff. On the other hand, you have classic responsibility referrals that are typical of authorities. Ultimately, no one is really in charge and certainly not responsible.

This type of reasoning can also be referred to as the "Eichmann effect". The SS officer convicted in the 1960s, defended himself on the grounds that he had only taken orders from above, and was therefore not to blame for the way things evolved. With video surveillance carriers, the reasoning is quite similar. The larger the organisation, the more likely the evaporation of accountability.

How big was the sample of people you asked?
I filed 18 requests in total. The list of carriers includes banks, supermarkets, museums, public transportation, fast food restaurants, tobacco shops academic institutions, shops, a hot dog stand and a nightclub.

Can you point out who violated data privacy regulations – or does that fall under data privacy again?
I would like to disclose the matter. However, the naming of interview partners is subject to an obligation of secrecy. In addition, it is a legally sensitive area. I was repeatedly deterred from photographic documentation of the camera locations and the publication of the information obtained.

This is not about the individual carriers, but about the mechanisms. I’m a social scientist, not a data protection activist. Still, the many legal offences and violations are hard to miss. A legal punishment would be due for almost all carriers.

Photo by Zachary Pointon

Why do you think the right to information is not complied with?
Often, video surveillance system carriers have neither the technical nor legal know-how to answer the question correctly. The monitoring system is simply installed, the rest is given little thought.

Do you see this as a systematic problem?
It’s mainly a question of workload. If the monitored population would claim their right to obtain information on an everyday basis, that would quickly lead to an unbearable overhead in many operators and presumably to an organisational failure. Imagine what would happen if every fifth person entering a supermarket or a bank demanded access to CCTV footage. This eludes to a clear tendency for rejection. The operators manoeuvre and evade the problem.

Why don’t citizens claim their right? Does it have to do with the fact that video surveillance is largely accepted today?
Yes, the current situation benefits from the wide acceptance but also ignorance of the affected population. In general, I would say that society is used to the wide use of video technology and no longer perceives it as an intrusion, as was perhaps the case earlier on.

Shouldn’t individuals who lack the necessary training to deal with the data appropriately, be prohibited from using CCTV?
My impression is that many carriers mount on the promise of security rather surveillance. Video surveillance is considered a technical standard, almost like Wi-Fi access, and is installed just like that. The practice then shows numerous problems. Often they begin quite banally with poor image quality. In some videos, you can barely recognise yourself. The carriers are also overwhelmed when it comes to giving out the video files, cutting them and anonymising them as is legally requested. There are also problems with forwarding the video material to the police when a situation requires it.  

The situation is similar with the reporting duty, the retention period and the general legal basis for the installation of the system. In some cases it is obvious that the monitoring system is used for monitoring of staff performance rather than as a means of crime prevention.

Do we even have to worry about the NSA, if we are monitored by our corner shop?
It is actually the little tobacconist that functions as a carrier of the monitoring phenomenon. Interestingly enough it is also him that tries to maintain the informational asymmetry and denies disclosure. This is generally quite typical for monitoring phenomenas: You don’t want anyone to view your cards.

What does that mean for you as a sociologist?
Mutual seeing and observing is social interaction. The visual balance is already slightly disturbed when a gaze is evaded or someone is hiding behind sunglasses. In this sense, video surveillance introduces a socio-technical observation order in our everyday lives. It is clearly formed in a one-sided fashion. We are detected by cameras in many settings, yet we have virtually no right to question this, let alone see the video footage. This poses questions of visual dominance.

Does monitoring actually make a difference? Does it have a deterrent effect?
In scientific circles, the effectiveness of crime prevention surveillance is highly controversial. I think technology has become so cheap that it is made ​​easy and totally separate from data protection issues and the actual safety requirements. I doubt that we really live in such a precarious society.