Tuesday, October 13, 1998 Published at 15:53 GMT 16:53 UK
Internet cameras to guard school?
Online security could help schools prevent vandalism
A headteacher's plan to use the Internet to protect his school from intruders has fallen foul of data protection regulations.
John Mann, head of Portsdown Primary School, Portsmouth, wanted to connect his school's security cameras to a Website, so that he could monitor the premises from home in the evening.
But Portsmouth City Council has advised Mr Mann that the scheme could be in breach of an updated Data Protection Act, due to be implemented next year.
The CCTV cameras have so far proved a great success at the school and Mr Mann wanted to extend the hours of surveillance. At present, the school cameras record overnight but are not monitored.
"We've already saved a fortune with the cameras, letting us keep things outside which would never have been possible before. For instance, we're keeping chickens now - they wouldn't have lasted an evening before."
In recent weeks, the cameras helped to secure the conviction of two would-be burglars, Mr Mann said.
In an incident before the cameras were introduced, he said that vandals had left the playground "looking as though someone had driven a bulldozer through it", but now there were far fewer problems.
However the school, in conjunction with the council, is considering an alternative system for next year, in which the school's cameras would be linked by modem to a control centre, which could be staffed overnight and which could provide a service to other schools in the city.
Could still be legal
Although the council has put the school's plans on hold, the Data Protection Registrar, which regulates data protection, suggests that the case of the school's Internet surveillance cameras is not so cut and dried and that no such blanket bans apply.
Jonathan Bamford, Assistant Data Protection Registrar, said that the new Data Protection Act will be followed by a code of practice on the use of security cameras, which will help to clarify the complex areas of acceptable and unacceptable recording.
For instance, in the case of an Internet-based system, worldwide access to daytime pictures of a school playground might not be desirable.
However if the cameras were used only at night and were clearly only for security purposes, the scheme proposed in Portsmouth would not necessarily be outlawed.