Can Westminster Council fix its flawed CCTV system in time for the Olympics?
If, as a shopkeeper, you were offered a £50 note which didn’t have an image of Boulton or Watt on it would you accept it as legal tender? No, of course you wouldn’t as it would be valueless. Boulton and Watt are woven into the notes as a watermark to reassure the owner that the currency is legal.
Yet Westminster City Council have been expecting motorists to accept video evidence of alleged parking offences without any reassurance that the video evidence has not been manipulated and without any valid watermarks. Amazingly, this may have been going on for years.
Parking campaigners have claimed that Westminster City Councils’ recently revamped CCTV network is not producing ‘barrister proof’ video evidence and the councils so called evidential videos may have had a broken audit trail for years.
Last month it was revealed that the council’s network of around 120 high resolution cameras, operated from control rooms in Lisson Grove and Piccadilly’s Trocadero Center underwent a £500,000 Olympic revamp. This May Westminster Council approved an agreement with Transport for London for the council to provide enforcement of the Olympic Route Network that runs through the borough.
After a recent Parking and Traffic Appeals Service (PATAS) hearing it emerged that DVD’s supplied by Westminster City Council as evidential copies didn’t have valid digital signatures or watermarks. In effect they were not guaranteed to be accurate or free from interference.
The issue came to light after parking campaigners The No To Mob and Barrie Segal from Appeal Now attended an all day hearing at PATAS. They were representing two black cab drivers who had been sent Penalty Charged Notices (PCNs) issued using cameras which formed part of Westminster Councils CCTV network. The hearing held before three of PATAS’s top adjudicators concentrated on whether Westminster Councils video evidence was fit for purpose.
The council was reassuringly represented by Lincoln’s Inn Barrister James Couser, who specialises in insolvency and company law. It is generally accepted that when one engages a barrister, it is usually prudent to find one who has a knowledge of parking and hopefully CCTV systems. Providing instruction to Mr Couser was the council’s own Australian solicitor Kelly Donovan. We noted that, ‘Skippy’ Donovan looked every bit the consummate professional smartly presented in what looked like a Coco Chanel number we nearly mistook her for a real SRA registered solicitor. Still PATAS is not a real court, just a kangaroo one as you will see later.
During the PATAS hearing Sara Sutton a Westminster Council Service Delivery Manager for Parking Services gave evidence that the councils DVDs were evidential copies of the footage and identical copies of the master copies which are held on the councils secure servers.
She explained that the council’s evidential DVD’s could be viewed on a computer using a specialized DVTel viewer.
The DVTel viewer is a software tool supplied with each DVD which is supposed to allow the viewer the ability to check the video for its watermark or digital signature. Ms Sutton helpfully stated in her evidence that “Each evidential DVD contained an integrity check file that would render the footage unplayable if tampered with. For this reason only the DVT file is evidential.” (Download source)
Westminster Council also backed up Ms Sutton’s statement by bringing along Ms Cathryn Scott who had come all the way down from Dingwell in Scotland, home of the councils outsourced procurement providers, Vertex Data Science Ltd.
In Ms Scott’s evidence it was stated “The evidential copy combines each image within the context sequence and the meta-data that describes that image within the same digital file. This digital file also contains an embedded digital “watermark” mechanism that allows the file to be subsequently validated against any modification of tampering, as long as the file remains in its original DVT format.” (Download source)
All in all this seemed like a lockout for the defence and a win win for Westminster Council (not to mention a weekday jolly for Ms Scott from Dingwall).
However, what was to follow was as close to a French Farce as anything Brian Rix could produce even with his trousers on.
During the PATAS hearing adjudicators were unable to get Westminster Council’s evidential DVDs to play at first, so they called in the help of Ms Andrews an outsourced IT expert on hand from the council.
After some 20 minutes of fiddling both the council’s evidential videos managed to finally be played to the adjudicators.
With breathtaking reassurance and clearly pleased with her work, in the afternoon the councils IT expert managed to replay a video from the morning’s case to the adjudicators.
But hold on. Nutsville was left scratching its head as it asked how this council IT expert managed to play the wrong video footage when campaigners had been assured that video footage was not pre-stored on PATAS’s computer hard drives. It’s like why there is always fluff under the bed, it may remain a mystery.
Nutsville can tell you the only way the wrong video footage could have been played when the DVD disc is changed would be if the video footage was already on that computers hard drive. This may have something to do with PATAS allowing Westminster Council to send their own IT people days before the hearing to try to make sure their suspect DVDs would play at the hearing.
That point was not picked up by the three adjudicators which by now seemed well out of their depth. So out of their depth were they that none of them spotted Ms Andrews not following Westminster’s own set of step by step instructions for playing the videos, let alone the ones produced by DVTel.
Most of us ignore the manuals, but the real reason she may have not wanted to follow the DVTel instructions was because they contain the information about checking the watermark which have been omitted from Westminster’s cut down instructions.
PATAS are always keen to tell the public how independent they are though, and we are sure they are not on regular chatty terms with council officers and don’t allow various local authorities councillors’ to select which retired solicitors get the lucrative adjudicator jobs, yes PATAS are independent alright.
The PATAS fiasco left campaigners with serious doubts about the video evidence so they took five of the councils evidential DVD’s to a specialist, Dr William Knottenbelt BSc (Hons), MSc, PhD at Imperial College London’s Department of Computing Imperial College London.
He found that none of the five DVD’s had a valid digital signature. Not only that but certain check boxes within the software were unusable and greyed out.
With the DVtel viewing software itself only playable on computers running 32 bit versions of Windows with an Intel compatible processor, MAC and a lot of Windows users are stuffed. But even if you got by the false virus alert that the DVTel software causes on many machines, you may still not be lucky enough to actually see the manipulated evidence the council are using to allege various offences against you.
It’s not surprising then that Westminster City Council put up such a dirty little fight to avoid any close scrutiny of its video system. In December 2011 Westminster’s Head of Legal, Peter Large warned the No To Mob’s Nigel Wise that his case was without merit and should he pursue it to another hearing the council would seek its costs of between £1500 and £2000.
But by the time the two cases did go back to PATAS in May 2012, Westminster’s specialist insolvency barrister James Couser (remember him also moonlighting as a parking specialist) seemed to have worked himself in to a right old froth, claiming the council would be seeking over £5000 compensation, after personally attacking both Mr Wise and Mr Segal. He claimed that neither of them should be able to represent the two black cab drivers calling them ‘intermedlers’ and that both were “off on frolics of their own”.
Things were getting so heated some people were reaching for their handbags as the venom continued to flow towards the campaigners.
Not even Dr Knottenbelt escaped the sharp side of this insolvency wiz barrister, claiming his evidence was suspect and lamented the fact that the professor was not at the hearing, no doubt so he to could receive a good tongue lashing from Couser.
Mr Couser had discovered that Dr Knottenbelt was not a great fan of the parking enforcement practices of some Local Authorities.
If Dr William Knottenbelt BSc (Hons), MSc, PhD at Imperial College London’s Department of Computing Imperial College London was not fit to give an opinion about Westminster Councils software just why do you almost need a tape measure to record all the letters after his name? It would be nice if Westminster Council were able to find an expert to disagree with Dr Knottenbelt’s observations, so we can get our tape measure out, just to see who the best judge of flaky software that in our opinion is so badly written most computers can’t play the videos.
Irrespective of what Mr Couser says, the fact is simple: either the videos show they have a valid digital signature or they don’t.
So far not one of the DVD evidential videos provided by Westminster Council show a valid digital signature, as the screen shot below shows.
If the digital signature was not of any importance why have DVTel gone to great trouble to build this security feature into their systems? The video below is made by DVTel and explains how operators can keep the digital signatures intact when making copies of the master video file.
As for Mr Segal not being qualified to represent anyone at PATAS, well Segal soon put PATAS right on that smear when he pointed out he had represented over 2700 cases at PATAS and a significant case in the High Court. Perhaps Mr Couser was confused between parking and insolvency, as Segal is also a chartered accountant. Lastly Mr Segal also runs his own software company and has done for many years, so you might say he knows a thing or two. Game set and match to Mr Segal we think.
Couser also attempted to smear Mr Wise in front of the PATAS adjudicators gleefully pointing out to them that Wise had accepted £50 compensation from PATAS for an appeal he defended. We all got to warm our hands on the bright red glow coming from Mr Couser when Mr Wise explained he was defending his own parking ticket at the time and having spent nearly £500 in expenses for that case, £50 compensation did not seem all that greedy, did it? There was also the little matter of the millions of pounds worth of refunds that Mr Wise has been instrumental in achieving for thousands of motorists.
Mr Couser apologised for his accusation and suggested his research had failed him on that point. Had Mr Couser not spent time downloading and printing over 60 pages of No To Mob forum posts (hardly scientific) he may have had more time to concentrate on the facts, rather than the vague jottings on an Internet forum. We did manage to hold back our laughter when he produced this piece of killer evidence which only seem to prove that he has access to a photocopier and is not afraid to use it.
It’s likely that Mr Couser was being paid more than £50 for his troubles, and what he was doing was just his job, he was a hired gun trying to save the arses of a few petty functionaries at Westminster Council who had forgotten they were there to serve the public. He did what any good barrister would do if the evidence provided by his employers was so thin, all that is left to do is get out the pot of ‘smear’ and start flinging it.
After all this was taxpayers money at stake, OURS.
As the PATAS hearing concluded the adjudicators said they expected to come to a decision within the next ten days, which would have brought us to the end of May. At the time of writing this (15th June 2012) PATAS have neither decided that Mr Segal and Mr Wise could act as representatives for the two black cab drivers, or if Westminster’s flaky CCTV system is fit for purpose.
Incidentally the rather over obliging Vehicle Certification Agency (VCA) even refused to certify Westminster City Councils DVTel software ‘solution’. Now they have learnt of the digital signature problem they have gone back to Westminster Council to ask what the hell has been going on (but not in those words). You see the VCA never actually came to check out Westminster’s CCTV systems, it was all done by emails between London and Bristol where the VCA are based. Westminster would say they have this piece of equipment or that piece of software works in such and such a way, even if it doesn’t, and the silly VCA just accept that Westminster are telling the truth.
Perhaps now you can see why Westminster City Council have point blank refused to release even a redacted word from the technical construction file which is supposed to back up the validity of their certificate.
What could have gone wrong.
This is only speculation but without any explanations from the council we do wonder how a system capable of producing evidential video keeps coming into to question. One of the differences in the Westminster CCTV system is that it consists of a large number of modified cameras, which after the DfT forced the council to switch them all off, the council embarked upon a ‘one by one’ camera module upgrade. This was reported to have cost around £850,000.
Doing an upgrade instead of a complete replacement may have caused the digital signature problem, as the watermark is often created by the camera module. So the watermark follows all the way through the system from camera to evidential copies, thus avoiding accusations of tampering.
It’s also not a difficult thing to achieve these days with any number of Local Authorities able to clearly explain how their CCTV is stored and is legal with a clear evidential trial, as this example from Info4 Security about Islington Council’s CCTV demonstrates. (http://www.info4security.com/story.asp?storycode=4115684 )
You might think that with the Olympics just around the corner and with Westminster City Council having just gained approval from Transport for London for the council to provide enforcement of the ‘Games Lanes’ nick named ‘Zil’ lanes running through the borough that someone from the council would be keen to explain if their CCTV is able to provide watermarked evidential videos. After all one of the big catch phrases councils just like Westminster use to sell the public an ever larger population of CCTV is the safety aspect, just sprinkle with words like crime, disorder and terrorism and your guaranteed budget approval for another splurge on spy cameras.
So who better to ask at Westminster Council than Leith Penny, Strategic Director for City Management who was contacted regarding serious concerns about the CCTV system three Friday’s ago?
He was in a meeting at the time, but was asked to call back, he never did.
Not even after contacting the councils Head of Legal, Peter Large, who said he woul;d ask ‘someone’ to call a No To Mob member back, still nothing from Westminster.
So penny just can’t be bothered to pick up the phone to talk about this, when in the past he’s been keen to haul his sorry carcass onto the roof of City Hall and deny to the BBC there is any problem with the certification of the councils CCTV system.
One can only assume he’s busy verifying the Queens portrait on the ten-pence piece he must have been given as a thank you by the Council to stay out of the way.
Peter Large has given a provisional opinion on the above matters, and although agreeing that an audit trial is needed, this does not necessarily require in law for the audit trial to include a digital signature.
A Select Committee on Science and Technology report does back up what he says (view source).
But one significant line in that report says “Of considerable interest to us was that no defence teams in the United Kingdom had, as yet, ever requested an audit trail be produced in any case where video images were being used by the prosecution This may change as defendants and their lawyers become more familiar with the technology”
If Westminster Council are using the same software for its crime and disorder CCTV (and DVTel suggest it is) there is a risk of challenge to any prosecutions the police might have made on the basis of WCC tampered with CCTV evidence.
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