Asma Begum
Safety concerns: Cllr Asma Begum. Photograph: Twitter

Privacy campaigners have raised concerns after security staff at libraries in Tower Hamlets were kitted out with body-worn surveillance cameras.

The cameras have been brought in at four of the borough’s Idea Stores.

The devices, sometimes termed bodycams, do not film continuously. Instead they are turned on by the wearer when they believe an incident of crime or anti-social behaviour is about to take place, or when they need to record their interaction with a member of the public.

Councillor Asma Begum, Tower Hamlets’ cabinet member for culture, said the scheme had been brought in “for the safety of our users and our staff”, with tackling anti-social behaviour a priority for Mayor John Biggs.

The cameras had not been introduced as a response to a specific incident, she said.

The bodycams have been issued to security staff at Idea Stores in Whitechapel, Bow, Chrisp Street and Watney Market. As well as library services, the Idea Stores offer adult education classes, while Watney Market Idea Store also houses one of the council’s One Stop Shops.

The council said that seven cameras were purchased, at a total cost of £3,500. The bodycams, which were brought in in May, are a permanent scheme, as opposed to a trial, it said.

In a statement, the council said that scheme followed the successful introduction of bodycams for Tower Hamlets Enforcement Officers, and that the move was supported by the police.

But the use of the cameras – when Idea Stores already feature CCTV – has been questioned by some.

Daniel Nesbitt, research director at campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: “With recent research casting doubt on the effectiveness of body-worn cameras this scheme has to be introduced very carefully.”

Nesbitt also said that the scheme should be “regularly reviewed to make sure it is actually having a positive impact.”

Charles Farrier, of No CCTV, a group that campaigns against what they consider to be excessive surveillance, said there is increasingly a “bodycam-on-everything” attitude.

Asked about privacy concerns, Cllr Begum said “These bodycams don’t film continuously…There is also no playback [facility] to it either”.

She added: “I think safety is key here. I think you can never compromise safety”.

A council spokesperson said: “Staff have been instructed to film only when they think there is the potential of a confrontation or when a visitor starts behaving in an antisocial way.

“For instance, a member of staff may turn the body camera on when approaching and trying to resolve an incident.

“The council values the safety of all staff and service users and body cameras have been introduced in a bid to identify individuals who may pose a danger to safety in public buildings such as Idea Stores. The police welcome this initiative, because it also helps them.”

The spokesperson also said: “In line with Data Protection rules, all our Idea Stores display the relevant legal warning signs at the entrance to say that CCTV is in use, any person entering the Idea Store is therefore warned that they are on CCTV.

“As the body cameras are only used when there is an incident, we add the additional precaution that the operative using the camera advises the person they are dealing with, that both video and audio recording is now taking place by means of the body camera.”

In November 2015, the Met Police announced the purchase of 22,000 bodycams, with the majority of frontline officers to be fitted out.

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