Friday, May 13, 2011

Smile, You're On Camera

(NOTE: Blogger was not working for around 24 hours. Yesterday's entries were lost, so the article has been re-entered. The system now appears to be working again and so, much later than usual, is today's article. Apologies for this. Trust normal service will be resumed and maintained from tomorrow. Andrew.)

Video and the internet have enabled us to become virtual tourists. Though I worry that there are strange people who spend hours staring at a barely changing image of a promenade or sea front in Mallorca through the medium of a shaky webcam, to be able to drop in and take a quick view of what a place is like at any time does have some attraction.

One problem with webcams, other than the fact that the images are often not very good or the camera isn't working, is that many of them aren't registered. Mallorca is not a heavily surveillance society. It adheres to Spanish regulations governing data protection and privacy, but it is these regulations that webcams can flout.

Security cameras for property are meant to avoid showing the "public way". In other words, they have to be trained on entrances, access points and so on and not, potentially, on members of the public who might be passing by. Regardless of whether the public way is being shown or not, the right authorisation and controls are needed, which come from the police and the data protection agency.

There has been an increase in public way surveillance, however, and this is as a result of the police requiring systems to watch for potential delinquency. Though this increase has caused some disquiet, the use of cameras is nevertheless authorised. Webcams often are not.

Webcams have cropped up in an unexpected context. The ongoing court investigations surrounding alleged corruption and other misdemeanours at the tourism ministry have now focussed on webcams that were put up following the ETA bombs in 2009.

It was not unreasonable for the regional government to think that ETA might just place a bomb or two on tourist beaches. The terrorist organisation had done so in the past. It was this concern that was the backdrop to the tourism ministry setting about putting up surveillance webcams on hotel sites that were trained onto the beaches.

On the face of it, this may sound like it was a sensible precaution. Sensible or not, little that was occurring at the tourism ministry or at its strategy institute, Inestur, during Miguel Nadal's period as minister is escaping the scrutiny of the investigators.

But then, how sensible as a precaution was it? The number of webcams amounted to five in total. One of them was put up at the Nuevas Palmeras hotel, part of the Sunwing Resort, in Alcúdia. Anyone with even a vague idea of the geography of Alcúdia's coastline will know that the beach stretches for several kilometres. The other four were in four different resorts. As surveillance measures go, they were of limited or even no use.

Apart from the fact that investigators might want to know if there was any government cash going somewhere it shouldn't have, they also want to know whether permission was actually sought or indeed granted for the cameras to be put up. Furthermore, they want to know whether these cameras are still there, whether they are working, who exactly is looking at or controlling the images captured and whether these images have been or are being stored.

Here's a question for you. If you are a sunbather on a beach in Mallorca, do you want a camera to be watching you? I suspect you don't. And this goes to the heart of the privacy laws. The investigators are quite right to be taking a wider interest in the webcam affair than just any possible financial wrongdoing.

A mystery of this case is the line of authorisation. No mention is being made of the security forces. It was Miguel Nadal, the tourism minister remember, who appeared to order the cameras' installation; for the regional government, either through the tourism ministry or another agency, to undertake the sort of surveillance which appears to have occurred (may still be), it has to refer the matter to the delegation for the Balearics at central government.

It's all about checks and balances. Privacy and data protection are taken seriously in Spain. The contrast is sometimes made between the liberal application of privacy laws in Britain with the greater rigour in Spain and in Germany. The contrast owes much to contrasting political regimes of the last century.

It may all seem pretty innocent, sticking up a webcam and showing views of a beach or a promenade or whatever. But there are meant to be rules.

Any comments to please.

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