A government watchdog is looking at claims council-run CCTV cameras in three Kettering parks may have been operated illegally.
Surveillance has been in operation at the Rockingham Road Pleasure Park, North Park and Mill Road Park since last spring as part of a £150,000 project to make the town safer.
But almost a year on North Northamptonshire Council is facing a complaint that the parks' cameras have not complied with the law because they lacked signs required by data protection regulations - meaning many park users may potentially have been illegally monitored.
The council's use of CCTV is now being assessed by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), which has the power to levy financial penalties.
An ICO spokesman told the Northants Telegraph: “We have received a complaint about this matter and we will assess the information provided.”
It is a legal requirement for organisations using CCTV to comply with GDPR and the Data Protection Act, designed to protect individuals from having their personal information misused, exploited or mishandled. The law requires that organisations are transparent about how and why they use personal data and people must be informed when they are in an area where a surveillance system is in operation. The ICO says prominent signs showing recording is in operation should be visible and readable, contain details of the organisation operating the system and its purpose, and basic contact details.
North Park and Mill Road Park each have two 24-hour CCTV cameras, but when we visited last week neither park had any signs warning visitors that surveillance is in place.
And the Rockingham Road Pleasure Park, which has five cameras, had just two signs attached to lampposts which it is claimed do not meet legal requirements. The signs, in Park View and Pollard Street, said that recording is in operation but do not say who by or why, and include no contact details. One is covered by a green algae-like stain. There were no signs at the park's other main entrances or at side gates.
Since we contacted them for comment North Northamptonshire Council has put up some signs which meet regulations - old Kettering Borough Council signs with the new authority's web address stuck on - but some cameras remain without a sign or with a sign that does not appear to comply with the law.
The complaint has led to questions over whether CCTV footage from the parks would be admissible as criminal evidence if it was found the cameras had been operating illegally. Uses and abuses of the Data Protection Act are patrolled by the ICO, which would be more likely to demand breaches are put right rather than issue a fine if they had concerns.
The CCTV systems were installed with funds from a grant under the Government's Safer Streets initiative to combat lawlessness in high-crime areas. Concerns had been raised about open drug dealing, particularly in Mill Road Park. The now-abolished Kettering Borough Council partnered with Northants Police and the county's crime commissioner to develop the project and last year it was agreed a £1,000 grant would be used to pay for signs, similar to those in the town centre which comply with the law, when cameras were installed.
North Northamptonshire Council took on responsibility for the cameras when it replaced Kettering Borough Council last year and has a legal duty to inform anyone whose personal data has been breached, which would prove to be a huge task. It could potentially face compensation claims if people can prove their data has been breached - in this case images used to unlawfully identify park users - and that it has caused them damage or distress.
An email sent by a North Northamptonshire Council officer, seen by the Northants Telegraph, blamed Covid for the delay in erecting signs - despite it being outdoor work. The email said that signs would be installed as "soon as reasonably possible".
Last week we asked North Northamptonshire Council whether surveillance would be suspended until the issue was resolved, why signs which meet the law were yet to be put up and what had happened to the £1,000 that was yet to be used.
In response, a council spokesman said: “CCTV plays a key role in keeping communities safe by helping in the prevention of crime and also through providing a source of evidence. CCTV operations are governed by a national code of practice with which we need to comply to ensure the system is operated in good faith.
“The code of practice refers to ‘letting people know’ where surveillance systems are in operation, stating that signage is put in place. We have signage in place, however, as concerns have been raised regarding particular sites and their signs, we will investigate and see whether any adjustments need to be made.
“We continually monitor our CCTV portfolio and the infrastructure is part of an ongoing maintenance programme.
“The money from the office of the police, fire and crime commissioner was awarded to a predecessor authority and is now part of this council’s maintenance budget. Going forward the whole CCTV network across the council area will be reviewed as part of the service harmonisation work across north Northamptonshire.”