Centre for Internet & Society

The need for video surveillance has grown in this technologically driven era as a mode of law enforcement. Video Surveillance is very useful to governments and law enforcement to maintain social control, recognize and monitor threats, and prevent/investigate criminal activity. In this regard it is pertinent to highlight that not only are governments using this system, but residential communities in certain areas are also using this system to create a safer environment.

However, this move is fundamentally opposed by many civil rights and privacy groups across different jurisdictions and have expressed concern that by allowing continual increases in government surveillance of citizens that we will end up in a mass surveillance society, with extremely limited, or non-existent political and/or personal freedoms.

European Union

The Data Protection Directive [1]of 1995, a Directive was issued by the European Union (EU)  to regulate the processing and free movement of personal data. In pursuance with this Directive, every country of the EU  passed a legislation to govern the protection of personal data. In this regard, the United Kingdom (UK) enacted the Data Protection Act (DPA) in 1998 and the same was brought into force in the year 2001.

The DPA sets forth eight, Data Protection Principles (DPP)[2] to protect personal data in the public sphere. Although video surveillance has not been explicitly referred to in the legislation, the definition given by the DPA is broad enough to encompass it. The application of these principles to video surveillance has been made explicit through the publication of the CCTV Code of Practice (CoP) by the information commissioner. The CoP does not apply to surveillance cameras used for household purposes. Images captured for recreational purposes with a camera, video recorder, etc., are also exempt. The main features of the CoP have been summarized below:

  • It is important to ascertain who has the responsibility for the control of the images i.e., deciding what is to be recorded, how the images should be used and to whom they may be disclosed. The body which makes these decisions is called the data controller and is responsible for the compliance with the DPA. The body has to notify the information commissioner as to who the data controller is.
  • An impact assessment should be done to evaluate the scheme’s impact on the privacy rights of the public. While conducting such an assessment, the data controller should take into account what benefits can be gained, whether better solutions exist, and what effect it may have on individuals. The results of the assessment should be used to determine whether video surveillance is justified and if so, how it should be operated.
  • The camera equipment should be chosen so as to fulfill the purposes for which the surveillance is being carried out. They should have the necessary technical specification so that the images are of appropriate quality. The camera should be positioned in such a way that only those areas which are intended to be the subject of surveillance are covered.
  • Viewing of live feed must be restricted to authorized personnel only. The data controller should try and protect the images from public view. Disclosure of recorded images should also be controlled and limited to the purpose for which the surveillance was set up. All other requests for viewing images should be considered carefully and balanced against the privacy rights of other individuals who may be affected by the disclosure of the images.
  • The DPA does not prescribe any minimum or maximum period of retention. It should be ascertained keeping in mind the purpose for which the surveillance system was set up. However, the images should not be kept for longer than is strictly necessary.
  • There should be prominently placed signs to let people know that they are in an area which is under video surveillance. This can be supplemented by an audio announcement in places where public announcements are already being used, such as in stations. Systems in public spaces and shopping centres should have signs giving the name and contact details of the company, organisation or authority responsible. 
  • Staff operating the system needs to be aware of the rights of the individual under the DPA.


Canada has two federal laws which deal with privacy — the Privacy Act, 1985 and the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, 2000 (PIPEDA). The former protects privacy rights by limiting the collection, use and disclosure of personal information by the federal government departments and agencies whereas the latter deals with the collection, use and disclosure of personal information by private sector organizations. In addition to these two legislations, every province or territory has their own privacy legislations.

A privacy commissioner is appointed to receive and investigate complaints filed by Canadian citizens pertaining to allegations of violation of the Acts. They also conduct research into privacy issues and promote awareness. The privacy commissioner reports directly to the House of Commons and the Senate. Every province or territory may also have its own commissioner or ombudsman authorized to investigate complaints. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) published two sets of guidelines in order to define and circumscribe the use of video surveillance and ensure that the impact on privacy is minimized.

The first set of guidelines is meant to guide the regulation of video surveillance (by law enforcement agencies) in public spaces i.e., in places where there is free and unrestricted access to everyone. These guidelines were drawn up after extensive discussions between the OPC and the Royal Canadian Mount Police (RCMP). However, these guidelines are to be considered merely as an aid and notwithstanding anything stated in the guidelines, the RCMP has the right to carry out its functions as it deems fit. Some of the important pointers are[3]

  1. Video surveillance should only be used to address a "real and pressing problem" which is of sufficient in magnitude so as to warrant the overriding of the privacy rights of citizens. Hence, there should be "real and verifiable" instances of crime or concern for public safety.
  2. Video surveillance should be conducted only as a last resort i.e., in circumstances where there in no other less privacy-intrusive alternative.
  3. A "privacy impact assessment" should be conducted beforehand to assess the degree of interference that will result due to the video surveillance.
  4. Relevant stakeholders (for example, members of the communities that will be affected by the surveillance systems) should be considered before arriving at a decision.
  5. Video surveillance must comply with all applicable laws including over arching laws such as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
  6. The video surveillance should be conducted in such a way that impact on the privacy rights of citizens is minimized. For example, limited use of video surveillance (e.g., for limited periods of day, public festivals, peak periods) should be preferred to be always on surveillance if it will achieve substantially the same result. 
  7. The public should be informed that they are under surveillance. Clear signs should be put up mentioning the perimeter of the surveillance areas, the person responsible for surveillance and his contact details in case of any queries.
  8. Security of the equipment and images should be assured.
  9. People whose images are recorded should be able to request access to their recorded personal information.

The second set of guidelines is with respect to video surveillance in private sector organizations. These guidelines apply to overt video surveillance of the public by private sector organizations in publicly accessible areas. They do not apply to covert video surveillance nor do they apply to the surveillance of employees.

  1. "Determine whether a less privacy-invasive alternative to video surveillance would meet your needs.
  2. Establish the business reason for conducting video surveillance and use video surveillance only for that reason.
  3. Develop a policy on the use of video surveillance.
  4. Limit the use and viewing range of cameras as much as possible.
  5. Inform the public that video surveillance is taking place.
  6. Store any recorded images in a secure location, with limited access, and destroy them when they are no longer required for business purposes.
  7. Be ready to answer questions from the public. Individuals have the right to know who is watching them and why, what information is being captured, and what is being done with recorded images.
  8. Give individuals access to information about themselves. This includes video images.
  9. Educate camera operators on the obligation to protect the privacy of individuals.
  10. Periodically evaluate the need for video surveillance."

United States of America

Statutory laws governing the regulation of video surveillance in America are scarce. While there are some state laws which regulate aspects of public video surveillance, there are virtually no federal laws which directly deal with it. However, video surveillance implicates certain constitutional doctrines — especially the first and the fourth amendments. Although it cannot be denied that the liberties enshrined by these amendments can be severely affected by continuous surveillance, so far, the American courts and jurisprudence on the subject have been very permissive.

Another important directive is the "Fair Information Practices" (FIP) originating from the recommendations written by the United States Government which provide certain rights to individuals with respect to the use and dissemination of personal information. Although these guidelines do not have the force of law, they can prove to be a valuable guide for the treatment of any government-held record containing personally identifiable information. The rights of individuals listed by the FIP, in their most basic form, have been given below:[4]

  •  "Notice and awareness of the purpose of data collection, and how such information is used;
  • Consent to the collection of personal information, and choice concerning how it is used;
  • Access to and participation in the process of data collection and use, including the right to correct errors;
  • Integrity and security adequate to protect the information against loss or misuse; and
  • Redress and accountability for injury resulting from loss or misuse of personal information."

Also, the American Bar Association, in 1999, published standards for technologically-assisted physical surveillance, including video surveillance. Some of the key points of these guidelines are given below:

  • While regulating the use of video surveillance for law enforcement purposes, certain factors should be kept in mind. For example, the nature of the law enforcement objective or objectives sought to be achieved, the extent to which the surveillance will achieve the law enforcement objectives, the nature and extent of the crime involved, etc.
  • The extent to which the surveillance invades privacy should be assessed. While conducting such an assessment, care should be taken to enhance the privacy of the location under surveillance by taking into consideration the nature of the place, activity, condition, or location.
  • Alternate measures should be preferred over video surveillance in order to maintain a balance between the right to privacy and the need for surveillance. 
  • Notice of the surveillance should be given when appropriate. 
  • The scope of the surveillance should be limited to its authorized objectives and be terminated when those objectives are achieved.


Neither the Australian Federal Constitution nor the Constitutions of the six states and two territories contain any express provisions relating to privacy. However, there are several state and federal privacy laws governing specific sectors and aspects. The primary federal statute is the Privacy Act of 1988 (PA). This statute was enacted in a bid to give effect to Australia's commitment to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). There are four key areas of application of the Act out of which only two are relevant in the context of video surveillance. The first is the eleven Information Privacy Principles (IPPs), based on the OECD Guidelines. These principles are applicable to federal government agencies. The second is the National Privacy Principles (NPP) which regulates private sector organizations. However, private organizations can set forth their own "code of practice" and get it approved by the privacy commissioner as long as it does not go against the broad framework laid down by the NPPs.

Apart from the PA, each state or territory may have its own laws or practices regarding video surveillance. For instance, covert video surveillance in New South Wales is governed by the Workplace Video Surveillance Act, 1998. The Government of New South Wales also published a report on CCTV in public places. Similarly, Victoria is governed by the Surveillance Devices Act, 1999 and Western Australia by the Surveillance Devices Act, 1998. However, South Australia, Tasmania, Northern Territory and Australian Capital Region have no legislation dealing with the use of video surveillance.


The Constitution of Japan does not contain any express provisions guaranteeing the right to privacy. Till 2003, even statutory law in the field of data protection was non-existent and the government followed a policy of self regulation. It was only in 2003 that the Japanese Parliament enacted the Protection of Personal Information Act. The law underlying privacy in Japan[6] protects only personal information that is obtained and held by administrative agencies, private agencies. It seeks to set forth penal provisions in order to curb leakage of personal information by the government. The subsequent amendments to this Act have widened its scope to cover data that is paper based as well as computerized. Therefore, it can be said that the instant legislation is broad enough to encompass video surveillance data as well.

In this regard it is set forth that there exists no consolidated law to govern video-surveillance systems. Nevertheless, Japan uses video surveillance systems in order to assist the law enforcement agencies. The National Police Agency uses a video surveillance system called the "N system"[7] in order to record license plate numbers of vehicles on roads, highways, etc. This facilitates effective and efficacious law enforcement in Japan. Furthermore, Tokyo police have been operating surveillance cameras on utility poles and buildings to monitor pedestrians in the several densely populated districts of the city.[8] However, this mechanism has been challenged severely by litigants and many privacy groups in the court of law.


We have now moved into an age where security seems to be the primary issue for most countries and their citizens. Video surveillance is increasingly being used to assuage the fears of the citizens and bring perpetrators to justice. In such a scenario, the issue of privacy rights of individuals seems to have taken a backseat. While some countries such as Canada and Britain have attempted to strike a balance between the need for surveillance and the privacy rights of the people, other countries such as the United States of America and Japan do not seem to have made much progress in terms of creating video surveillance norms or regulations to protect the privacy rights of citizens.

Considering the pressing need for video surveillance to address national security issues, India surprisingly has no laws on the same. In this regard, India needs to draw from the experience of the United Kingdom and Canada. The first step is to enact laws permitting video surveillance.

These laws should be tightly worded and strictly connoted, considering the encroachment on civil liberties. Further, in order to balance security with privacy, the next step is to create an office for the information commissioner. It should be created and powers should be conferred to ensure that the privacy related disputes are handled efficiently and expeditiously. Furthermore, the misuse of the powers conferred upon surveillance authorities should be deterred by giving further powers to the commissioner to impose pecuniary liability.


European Union


United States of America:




[1]Directive 95/46/EC.

[2]See http://www.ico.gov.uk/for_organisations/data_protection/the_guide/the_principles.aspx (eight data protection principles)

[3]Full guidelines: http://www.priv.gc.ca/information/guide/vs_060301_e.cfm.

[4]Full guidelines: http://www.americanbar.org/publications/criminal_justice_section_archive/crimjust_standards_taps_blk.html#9.


[6]This law extends to private businesses, government organizations and independent administrative agencies.

[7]540 locations on expressways and major highways throughout the country; it automatically records the license plate number of every passing car.

[8]This regime has also been litigated upon thoroughly with lawyers claiming the same to be unconstitutional.

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