Balancing Security and Privacy: Ethical Considerations in Video Surveillance Systems

Balancing Security and Privacy: Ethical Considerations in Video Surveillance Systems

With the advent of cheaper video technology and faster data processing techniques, video surveillance is becoming widespread in most public spaces in urban life.

According to the verified market research report, the Video Surveillance market was valued at USD 54.21 billion and is projected to reach USD 108.40 billion by 2030. Video surveillance (security cameras) capture live footage for real-time viewing or are recorded for offline review.

The cameras are usually integrated into a wider security system to enhance the physical security of infrastructures and people. The use of video surveillance is integrated into smart cities and is even present in workplaces and critical infrastructure facilities like airports. The use of video surveillance systems can lead to ethical implications for the people using these systems and a balance between security and privacy must be achieved.

Over the past decade, the advancements in Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies have seen the integration of AI and video surveillance for automated video analysis.

Most video surveillance systems nowadays include video analytics that allows the detection, classification and tracking of objects (e.g. luggage left unattended in airports) and people for security purposes with the application of facial recognition and real-time monitoring. The Oyoon programme by Dubai police makes use of more than 300,000 cameras linked to the central command room, can track people around the city.

State-of-the-art vision system enables the tracking of several people or vehicles within the surveillance zone. Another implementation of video analytics in surveillance systems is behavioural analytics, which uses a combination of AI, and big data to analyse the difference in normal activities to identify anomalies (suspicious behaviours). An example of an application of behavioural recognition and real-time monitoring in a crowd can be the flagging of a couple of individuals starting to fight, which would deviate from normal behaviour.

More recently, drones have been added to video surveillance for asset protection and object tracking and monitoring. These drones can record and livestream videos and be used for example in a construction site to detect intrusion or unwanted change.  The use of these constant recordings of videos in different areas has assisted in enhancing security but also raised concerns about invasion of privacy and fear of potential misuse of the videos.

Ethical Conundrum

The main ethical issue that arises with video surveillance in public spaces, is informed consent. Normally, the notion of informed consent from participants is paramount to the use of their data or video, but in the case of video surveillance, the public is not aware of any recordings of them.

This situation can occur in workplaces too, where staff are oblivious to camera surveillance. Most authorities do not make their security system visible to the public, therefore the former do not ask for consent from the latter. As a remedial, wherever there is camera surveillance, anyone entering the surveillance area should be made aware that they will be recorded on video or monitored and how their data will be used (e.g. for facial recognition or behavioural analytics).

The individuals can then make their own decisions about their personal behaviour within the surveillance area.

Videos from surveillance systems are usually stored in case they are needed in the future. The data storage policy should be clearly indicated as part of providing informed consent by individuals.

The data stored must be used only for the specific purpose of enhancing security, otherwise, this might lead to the oppression of individuals or groups, by using the data for other purposes. The use of facial recognition in public has been denounced for racial bias against some ethnic groups, which can cause more false positives and this can lead to unjust profiling and discrimination of minorities.

At workplaces and other indoor facilities, the constant monitoring of the activities of people can adversely impact the personal freedom of these individuals. The use of video behavioural analytics and facial recognition can include additional issues of equality, diversity, and inclusion because individuals or groups may feel targeted for how they look.

Another ethical issue that might occur is the access to data stored about individuals. It is very rare for people to have access to videos stored about them by authorities or private companies. The video recorded can sometimes be shared with other authorities or on social media, without the consent of the individuals, which is a serious ethical infringement of their privacy and personal freedom.

Possible remediations

While video surveillance systems are paramount to enhancing security, it is possible to reduce the invasion of privacy by having remediation in place within the systems or when using the systems.

The type of data collected from users when they enter the area of video surveillance should be clearly communicated. Furthermore, there should be transparency in the use of the data collected, for example, video collected should be used only for the specific rationale of their use. The videos should be treated as confidential data and stored securely to prevent access by unauthorised users or cyberattacks, which may lead to leakage of individuals’ data.

To improve the collection of videos ethically, video surveillance systems need to use privacy frameworks or Privacy Impact Assessments. The privacy frameworks are comprehensive guidelines and processes, regulations and practices designed to protect the personal data of individuals. Some examples of data privacy frameworks are ISO 27701, the NIST Privacy Framework and Fair Information Practice Principles (FIPPs).

Privacy impact assessment allows the selection of options for better privacy as part of the surveillance system design, by adopting privacy-enhancing technologies to protect individuals’ privacy. In smart cities, there can be friction between public and private sectors and citizen involvement, about the control and data ownership of citizens. There needs to be a balance between the authorities, policymakers and citizens.

The use of privacy frameworks or Privacy Impact Assessments will, most importantly, impart the notion of accountability as part of the design of video surveillance systems so that any infringement of individuals’ privacy and freedom will be kept to a minimum while still allowing for effective security. If people feel that there is accountability, they will have trust in the surveillance system, which should make for a safer environment, which is the aim of any video surveillance system.- Dr Ryad Soobhany, Associate Professor in Security & Forensics and Deputy Director of Ethics at Mathematical and Computer Sciences, Heriot-Watt University Dubai.