Published: 17:46, 06 October 2020
| Updated: 11:25, 07 October 2020
Artificial intelligence cameras which can be used to monitor social distancing are "in the pipeline" for town centres in Kent.
The high-tec equipment can hone in on pedestrians and surrounds them with individual coloured rectangles which can show how close together they are and how busy streets are.
But "serious questions" have now been raised about its use in the county.
Kent County Council's highways director, Simon Jones, said the government-financed scheme was "in the pipeline" but stated that no recording devices had been installed in any of the county's 13 districts.
Nikola Floodgate, who is KCC's schemes planning and delivery manager, has denied that the cameras will be used for a "big brother" purpose. She noted it was part of a wider national project to trial a variety of technologies in the UK.
She told KCC's scrutiny committee earlier today: "The cameras have been used by the Department for Transport in other UK locations without advising us and we are having a conversation about them now."
According to the website of manufacturers Vivacity, the technology giant has been using these sensors across the UK during the pandemic to enforce strict social distancing rules. Data from the devices is being fed back to the DfT while the sensors can also be used to monitor traffic.
However, concerns were raised during the three-hour public meeting by several councillors from all political colours about the potential intrusion into people's privacy.
Folkestone county councillor Rory Love (Con), of Cheriton Sandgate and Hythe east, said: "If we are deploying cameras that are so sensitive as to be able to be used to monitor social distancing, that is something we ought to be looking at on the scrutiny agenda.
"There will be some pretty serious questions to be asked about that."
He added: "I think all of us would be worried and we probably ought to scrutinise that very thoroughly at a future time."
On its website Vivacity says: "Data from each of these sensors is being fed back to the Department for Transport as part of our responsibility to support the government on monitoring social distancing."
Peter Milton, who is the co-founder of Vivacity, said the cameras can help deliver "city-wide feed data on a whole transport network"
In a YouTube video posted by the company, he said: "We can gather and analyze data on how busy a city is, including data on public transport, roads, pedestrians, cyclists on the road and pathways and car parking delivering all of this in real time."
At the meeting Cllr Dr Lauren Sullivan (Lab), of Northfleet and Gravesend west, said: "Were the residents and businesses here consulted and also the use of Vivacity, was that prescribed by government that we must use these cameras and this particular software?"
KCC Labour group leader Cllr Dara Farrell, of Ashford south, also questioned the scheme. He said: "There were some comments about social distancing within town centres and on pavements and can I confirm the cameras will have the ability to monitor this?"
However, KCC highways bosses attempted to allay fears expressed by some members of the 12-person committee during the virtual public meeting.
In response, Ms Floodgate said: "I can confirm that we are not taking it upon ourselves to monitor whether or not social distancing is being adhered to."
She later said: "I would hope to get some information outside of this meeting to reassure you around the issues around privacy, people objecting to the big brother concept and data protection."
KCC's highways director, Mr Jones, added: "Whilst these cameras are in the pipeline we have not actually put them out or turned them on yet."
Calls were made by committee members to scrutinise the issue in more detail at a future meeting, with the next scheduled on Friday, November 27.
KCC scrutiny committee chairman, Cllr Andy Booth (Con), said: "It is pertinent that we dig a little deeper and establish the underlying fundamentals of covert surveillance in this instance."
A KCC spokesman said: “We have been working on various trials with the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning & Transport SMART Places Live Labs programme.
"The purpose of these trials is to see how technology can help us, whether that’s to speed up repairs or see problems before they become a bigger issue.
“These Vivacity cameras, which we are advised by the company that makes them could be used to monitor social distancing, are in no way intended for this use by KCC during the trial.
“KCC does not have any need to do so as it is not an enforcing agency of social distancing regulations.
“The cameras are intended to classify who is using the highway – pedestrians, cars, buses, bicycles - and count those users and record their speeds.
“The cameras also record data on the interactions between pedestrians, cyclists and road traffic and this anonymised data is used to predict traffic jams more accurately.
“The recorded data can then predict how the road network will react in the future, providing us with considerably more accurate journey times and the potential to push people onto other types of transport rather than getting into their car.”
It is not clear if any data from the cameras will be sent to the DfT during the trial and the department has been contacted for more information.