G4S and body-worn cameras. The saga continues.

Readers may recall the concerns we have expressed in the recent past, relating to G4S’ use of body worn cameras when interacting with asylum seekers in their own homes, and the company’s apparent failure to comply with data protection regulations set down by the Information Commissioner’s Office [ http://asirt.org.uk/wordpress/?p=328 ].

As a consequence of these concerns, G4S issued a statement on February 3rd, noting that:

“We just wanted to provide you with an update on the current position regarding Body-worn Cameras (BWC).

We have listened to the concerns raised by partners and as a result we have recently issued an interim instruction that whilst every Welfare Service Officer (WSO) must wear the devices at all times they will only record when they have a reasonable fear of aggression and believe that any recording will act as a deterrent.  This interim instruction supersedes the previous requirement for the cameras to be on at all times whilst a WSO is engaged with an asylum seeker (‘Service User’). 

Please also note that whilst we have been engaging with the Information Commissioner’s Office throughout this process, we have a face to face meeting with them on Friday 10th February to discuss our policy around BWC in more detail.  

We will also be reviewing our Privacy Impact Assessment as part of that meeting.  

We will provide a further update w/c 13/02/2017.”

And so, we waited. The week commencing February 13th accordingly came and went, with no further update coming, notwithstanding follow-up requests on our part.

Until yesterday, when we were forwarded- from The Guardian, rather than direct from G4S, as an interested a partner organisation- a letter dated  March 2nd from Mr John Whitwam, Managing Director of Policing Services and COMPASS for G4S, reading thus:

‘THE USE BODY-WORN CAMERAS BY G4S COMPASS FRONTLINE STAFF – AN UPDATE 

I committed to keep you informed of the progress of our introduction of body-worn cameras across the G4S asylum seeker accommodation regions.

Many of you received my summary, FAQs, message to asylum seekers and instructions to welfare officers last month.  Since then, we have engaged with a number of stakeholders to be certain that our response to incidents of aggression and violence was accepted as justified, proportionate and effective.  The use of cameras remains part of our commitment to treat our asylum seekers fairly and with respect and to protect our frontline staff tasked with helping them.  In order to achieve these aims, our welfare staff members receive training in a number of skills, are equipped with mobile telephones and lone worker security devices and more recently with encrypted body worn cameras.  It is now widely accepted and frequently proven that the existence of a credible recording device has a positive effect on the behaviours of both the wearer and the observed. 

As part of this information sharing, I have added the most recent statistical analysis of the incidence of aggression and violence that our staff members face (see the attached slides). [NB- no such document is attached to the correspondence seen by ASIRT]  Note that while the facts show a significant increase in the number of aggressive and/or violent events, the overall numbers remain small and it is still the case that the majority of the asylum seekers that we are tasked to accommodate are law abiding and comply with the terms of their application for asylum in the UK. 

Our meeting and calls with the Information Commissioner’s Office (an independent regulator) have been especially useful as they have considerable expertise in data protection issues associated with video and voice recording and the use of cameras by police and other uniformed and non-uniformed organisations.  As a result of our engagement we are modifying our procedures and enhancing the detail held on our Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) document.  We have also taken their guidance on our protocols around secure storage and communication of the recorded evidence in the event of an incident, on the duration that recordings are retained and on the process of meeting Subject Access Requests to release recordings under the Data Protection Act.  The creation of a PIA is accepted as best practice for programmes such as ours and we are grateful to the Commissioner for their practical advice. 

An ICO spokesperson said: “The ICO works with many organisations to help and encourage them to understand and meet their information rights obligations. We welcome the changes G4S has agreed to make in response to discussions with us.” 

We have also engaged with the Home Office so that they are aware of and support our changes to the camera programme.  

In addition, we have a long standing relationship with the charity Migrant Help and work with them in all of our Initial Accommodation hostels as well as signposting their services to our asylum seeker population across our dispersed estate.  They have also offered useful advice that we are implementing. 

Finally, we continue to engage with our frontline welfare officers so that they are trained in the use of the equipment and understand the subtleties of its impact (intended and unintended). 

Importantly, all of these stakeholders understand the need for the cameras and are supportive of their use under our revised operating procedures.  These revised procedures instruct frontline welfare officers to wear their body-worn cameras at all times when they are interacting with asylum seekers, but to turn them on prior to their interaction under the following circumstances: 

  • When visiting asylum seekers who have previously been aggressive or violent to a fellow asylum seeker or a G4S welfare officer,
  • When visiting asylum seekers who have been informed of the Home Office’s decision that their asylum claim (including appeal) has been unsuccessful and they are illegally refusing to vacate their property (colloquially known as ‘overstayers’),
  • When visiting asylum seekers remanded on bail and accommodated in an asylum seeker property under the COMPASS contract,
  • When visiting an asylum seeker to issue a disciplinary sanction in the form of a warning letter,
  • When visiting an asylum seeker to inform them of the Home Office’s decision that their asylum claim (including appeal) has been unsuccessful, and
  • Whenever the welfare officer has a reasonable fear of aggression or violence and believes that the overt use of the camera is likely to be a deterrent.  

I hope that you will see that we have listened to the suggestions and requests of the stakeholders with whom we have met and amended our procedures accordingly so that we achieve the aim of protecting welfare staff and asylum seekers in the most sensible manner. 

Earlier this week two welfare officers were visiting an address in Smethwick to undertake a property inspection when they were both attacked by an asylum seeker.  One was pushed and had to seek refuge behind a door, the other was blocked from escaping and verbally assaulted and property was damaged by the asylum seeker using a knife.  Both used their cameras and believe that this contributed to their safe escape.  The video evidence is being collected and will be passed to the Home Office for their analysis and use as they see fit. 

Thank you for your continued support. 

Yours sincerely, ‘

While it is obviously welcome that G4S now agrees with us that they are obliged to carry out a Privacy Impact Assessment in relation to the surveillance of asylum seekers in their own homes, it is striking that such an assessment has still yet to be made available for public scrutiny. And while G4S maintains that they have ‘engaged with a number of stakeholders’ in relation to its surveillance practices, it is entirely unclear who these stakeholders actually are- although ASIRT is aware that, from a West Midlands perspective, none of the organisations most vocally concerned about the practice’s introduction in December 2016 have been approached for comment.

Similarly, while Mr Whitwam claims G4S to have taken on the ICO’s guidance relating to protocols around secure storage and communication of recorded evidence, on the duration for which recordings are retained, and on the process of abiding by Subject Access Requests, it remains entirely unclear what these protocols actually are; for how long is G4S now storing recorded material? Where is this stored? How do data subjects go about submitting Subject Access Requests to the company?

We still simply do not know.

We are, further, struggling to understand some of the occasions on which Mr Whitwam considers it appropriate for G4S to be making use of their body-worn cameras.

Why, for example, would a G4S welfare officer be ‘vising an asylum seeker to inform them of the Home Office’s decision that their asylum claim has been unsuccessful’? Surely such information would most appropriately come from a given asylum seeker’s legal representative, rather than a G4S staff member not trained or regulated by the Office of the Immigration Service Commissioner to advise about potential future options? 

Moreover, it is a matter of some concern that the violent incidents alleged to have recently occurred in Smethwick appear only to have been reported to the Home Office for ‘analysis’. We consider that there is a safeguarding responsibility- towards other G4S staff, towards other individuals housed within a given property, and to the general public- to report such incidents to the police, with the available body-cam footage potentially informing any subsequent prosecution.

Given that threatening and abusive behaviour are regarded as criminal offences under the Public Order Act, we would suggest that individuals accused of such behaviour should properly be charged and subjected to due legal process, rather than having their behaviour ‘analysed’ solely by G4S and the Home Office as some form of Case Management exercise, potentially influencing the outcome of their asylum application.

Again, this perspective does little do resolve any of the concerns previously expressed around accountability, and it is worrying in the extreme that this point still does not appear to have been understood by G4S.

The story, in other words, has not yet reached its conclusion, and we will continue to lobby around this issue, ensuring that precarious individuals; Data Protection rights are upheld.

We will, as ever, keep you informed.

 

 

 

 

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