Friday, 14 November 2014

Are you aware that Clarence Valley Council is recording the conversations of staff and members of the public at its Grafton and Maclean chambers?

Security cameras are so ubiquitous in modern public building landscapes that most people hardly give them a second thought and so rarely, or never, wonder about how sophisticated the surveillance systems are that operate them.

So when the Link Security Group posts this on its website, the uninitiated like myself are none the wiser unless they delve deeper:

Link has recently assisted Clarence Valley Council, in the deployment of Milestone Systems XProtect Video Management Software, together with Axis Communications Cameras. In the past the Council had tried several other manufactures and ultimately deciding on the Milestone Systems and Axis Communications combination. 1

This month I had cause to look beyond those two sentences above, when I became aware (and Clarence Valley Council confirmed) that its surveillance regime at both Grafton and Maclean chambers involved not just recording and storing video footage but the recording and storage of audio as well.

The video and audio surveillance appears to target front counter staff and members of the public who enter the main foyer and front desk areas.

Apparently recording the conversations residents and ratepayers have with front counter staff has been occurring for some time, but it is only this month that Council management has thought fit to alert the general public to this intrusive level of surveillance and then, only after it became aware that this state of affairs was possibly about to become common knowledge.

Notice sticky taped onto the front glass wall of the Maclean council chamber as at 12 November 2014:

A surveillance camera in Maclean council chamber foyer:

Indeed, it appears that Council may also only have officially informed its front counter staff sometime within the last six weeks that their conversations were being recorded and stored for at least 30 days.

It is not yet clear if all Clarence Valley’s elected councillors were, or are now, aware that audio surveillance is occurring and that audio is allegedly being actively monitored in real time by management on occasion.

One has to wonder if council management informed Centrelink of this audio surveillance when this federal government agency was setting up a self-service Access Point  in the foyer of the Maclean council chamber.

The access point (with a direct telephone link with Centrelink staff) in the Maclean chamber foyer:

Because the surveillance system being used by council is capable of being configured to pick up audio anywhere in a 180 to 360 degree range and is not impeded by small partitions, it is possible that private conversations clients might have with Centrelink staff over the phone or with an accompanying spouse/partner/parent/friend whilst using this access point could be either accidentally or deliberately recorded via the nearest audio microphone.

This is an unacceptable privacy risk in what has become a multiple use foyer space and, one that should have been anticipated by council management – but did it?

Given that surveillance systems such as that being used by Clarence Valley Council are capable of being hacked or hijacked one wonders what the decision makers were thinking when they decided to add an audio function to council’s security system.

As for why it was thought necessary to monitor staff and resident/ratepayer conversations in the first place - perhaps that is a question our elected representatives should be asking the General Manager through the Chair at the next ordinary monthly meeting.

With Council already the subject of one rather unflattering review report by the NSW Information & Privacy Commission, councillors may not want another complaint on the record if a member of the public decides to approach the Commissioner over this issue.

Council appears to be relying in part on its own 2006 Electronic Communication Policy for the 'right' to snoop at will, but this policy is silent about the right to privacy of third party users of council premises and, says nothing about audio surveillance of the front counters at Maclean and Grafton chambers.

1. Details of Milestone Systems XProtect can be found here and Axis security camera models here. A simple Google search will bring up installation and operating systems information for both Milestone and Axis products. YouTube will obligingly provide the curious with how-to videos on using this publicly available information to assist in accessing individual passwords and entering the backdoor of surveillance systems.


Clarence Valley Review 17 November 2014:

The conversations of people who attend Clarence Valley Council’s foyers in Grafton and Maclean are being recorded in conjunction with the council’s CCTV surveillance.
A ratepayer, concerned that their privacy could be invaded, brought the issue up with the Review.
Not all conversations, particularly at Maclean, where the space incorporates a Centrelink access point, are necessarily between council staff and the public.
Clarence Valley Council’s general manager, Scott Greensill, responded to the Review’s October 30 enquiry in a written statement on Monday November 3.
He said CCTV (audio and video) surveillance has been undertaken at council foyers in Maclean and Grafton since late 2011......
Sometime between Tuesday November 4 and Tuesday November 11, a new sign (pictured), which replaced a sign that only referred to video surveillance, was taped to the window adjacent to the entrance at Maclean.
The Grafton foyer displayed a sign warning that both video and audio were being recorded at the time of the Review’s enquiry.
The Review lodged a further enquiry with the NSW Department of Justice, regarding which legislations were applicable: “The Workplace Surveillance Act 2005 does not apply to audio surveillance,” the department wrote.
“The Surveillance Devices Act 2007 prohibits the audio recording of private conversations without consent.
“‘Private conversations’ are defined to mean those where the circumstances reasonably indicate that the people having the conversation desire that it only be listened to by themselves, or by other persons with their consent.
“A conversation which occurs in circumstances where it can be reasonably expected that it will be overheard is not a private conversation.
“Private conversations can be recorded in some situations with the consent of a principal party [perhaps the council in this situation] to the conversation for specified purposes, for example, protecting the lawful interests of that principal party.
“The Surveillance Devices Act 2007 does not prohibit the recording of any conversation that is not private.
“Whether or not a conversation is private will depend on the factual circumstances of the individual matter.
“The Attorney General cannot however provide legal advice or comment in relation to the particular matter referred to in the request.”

It would appear that Clarence Valley Council is admitting that it has been surreptitiously taping conversations occurring in council chamber foyer areas for the last three years and that this taping began after Scott Greensill became general manager.

It would also appear that every Centrelink client who has ever used the access point in the Maclean council chamber foyer may have had their privacy breached.


Ursula Tunks said...

OMFG ...

“Through clever and constant application of propaganda, people can be made to see paradise as hell, and also the other way round, to consider the most wretched sort of life as paradise.”

― Adolf Hitler
“Great liars are also great magicians.”
― Adolf Hitler

“Demoralize the enemy from within by surprise, terror, sabotage, assassination. This is the war of the future.”
― Adolf Hitler

“The leader of genius must have the ability to make different opponents appear as if they belonged to one category. ”
― Adolf Hitler

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this Clarence Girl, one wonders just what they need to record and why?

Great to see our rates money being spent so effectively! No wonder they are always crying poor.

Anonymous said...

Who the hell do the persons at CVC responsible for the design and implementation of the policy covering this matter think they are!?!
Quite obviously there's not an ounce of common decency among them.
Apart from the absence of common decency and good manners there also a not insignificant matter of invasion of privacy that has legal ramifications.
Have those persons associated with the policy declared themselves exempt from provisions attached to improper usage of listening devices!?!
It looks like the offices of the privacy commissioners will be doing a fair bit of overtime attending to citizens' complaints when the wider community becomes aware of what CVC is up to with this matter.
Good luck, CVC, because you're going to need it in gigantic proportions. And, of course, who finally picks up the bill for this ... the not so lucky rate payers!