Research Case Study

Impact: Regulating advanced digital surveillance through the power of social science research

Professor Peter Fussey

Essex research has had significant impact on the regulation of emerging surveillance technologies, and in generating new oversight at a national and international level.

Our work has framed national policy, and legal and media debates. It has informed official bodies and organisations including the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency, the UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights and the Surveillance Camera Commissioner’s Office. It also formed part of the submission to the Court of Appeal for the recent landmark judgement on the legal basis for facial recognition technology.

What was the challenge?

Surveillance practices - both overt and covert - are increasingly using technologies that are becoming more and more intrusive. This raises significant concerns about human rights, citizenship, law and the boundaries of state interference in everyday life.

The technology is evolving fast and these rapid innovations are rendering existing regulations and legal frameworks in urgent need of modernisation.

What did we do?

Leading the surveillance work at Essex is Professor Peter Fussey, based in our Department of Sociology

In 2015, Essex launched the Human Rights, Big Data and Technology (HRBDT)  project with £4.7 million of funding from the Economic and Social Research Council. It is one of the first research programmes in the world to address the overall human rights impact of big data and emerging technologies in a truly interdisciplinary way. Professor Fussey is research director for the project and leads on the research on surveillance. 

Together with a colleague, Dr Daragh Murray from our Human Rights Centre and School of Law, Professor Fussey conducted the first and, to date, only independent academic evaluation on the use of live facial recognition (LFR)  technology by the Metropolitan Police Service. There were already concerns about the extensive societal impact surrounding the use of this technology and this report evidenced deficiencies in the legal basis and oversight regimes deployed by the Met. The report sparked an international media debate with coverage across major national and international outlets including The Guardian, Sky, Newsnight, New York Times and PBS Newshour.   

Professor Fussey has established a working relationship with the Investigatory Powers Commissioners Office (IPCO) – which oversees the work of more than 600 public agencies in the UK and is primarily focused on the covert surveillance activities of UK intelligence agencies. Via a series of Essex – IPCO workshops, specific problems concerning surveillance oversight in the digital age, and how sociological research and human rights scholarship can inform the oversight of such practices, were discussed.

Professor Fussey now leads the human rights strand of a national strategy for surveillance oversight on behalf of the Surveillance Camera Commissioner. His task is to scope out issues of human rights and ethics surrounding the use of overt surveillance, which is reported by the Commissioner and laid before Parliament on an annual basis. 

Over a number of years, Professor Fussey has positioned himself as one of the world’s ‘go-to’ academics when it comes to surveillance oversight. He has put himself at the heart of policy and practice formulation, working with organisations and individuals at the sharpest end of this emerging, but increasingly necessary, policy field.

What have we changed? 

The research on facial recognition was discussed in both Houses of Parliament and was used in the Greater London Assembly for the basis for questioning police deployments of this technology. 

This research has also informed the national Surveillance Camera Commissioner’s (SCC) guidance on the trialling of LFR and policy on emerging technologies. It also informed the SCC’s amicus curiae intervention into the Court of Appeal case Bridges v Chief Constable of South Wales Police regarding the legal basis of LFR. The appeal succeeded on three of five grounds. 

The research informed the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s Framework for Ethics in Digital Policing and was presented to the Home Office’s Biometrics and Forensics Ethics Group. It has also informed the work of the EU Fundamental Rights Agency, New York University’s interdisciplinary research centre, AI NOW, and Liberty, an organisation that campaigns for the fair treatment for all in the UK.  

The IPCO has credited Professor Fussey and Dr Murray’s work with informing their thinking around the development of policy frameworks to guide deliberations over necessity and other human rights considerations.

In summary, Professor Fussey’s work has had direct and significant impact on the policy and practice of regulating advanced forms of overt and covert digital surveillance. This impact has been achieved at national and international level, across numerous areas of policy and practice.