The not-so-candid cameras

County View

County View
John Healy

Across the country, there has been a huge upsurge in the level of illegal dumping since the start of the lockdown. Tidy Towns volunteers seem to spend every weekend cleaning roadsides and hedges of every kind of litter, knowing only too well they will have to do the same thing in a week’s time.
Black sacks of waste are dumped along our main roads; every remote by road is a target for the dumpers; the Castlebar town river, as it meanders along the new greenway to Turlough, often resembles a floating rubbish tip. Mayo County Councillors have this week complained of an ‘epidemic’ of illegal dumping.
Local authorities have been working with limited success to bring the perpetrators of illegal dumping to justice. It is no easy task.
The unsavoury duty of sifting through bags of domestic waste in the search for an incriminating envelope, a receipt or a discarded utility bill, would not be anybody’s first choice as an occupation. It is to the credit of council litter wardens that they continue to do so, regardless of the threat to health and hygiene. By right, one might think there should be a better way of clamping down on the offenders, a better system of bringing the litter louts to book.
The short answer, of course, is that there was such a better system in operation, until it fell foul of the State’s own way of making it unworkable. That system was the use of CCTV cameras, an eminently sensible way of catching the dumpers in the act and using the subsequent evidence in court proceedings.
But in 2020, Galway County Council was specifically warned by the Data Protection Commission not to use CCTV images in pursuit of prosecutions, as the use of such tactics would be in breach of civil liberty rights. When the matter was subsequently raised in the Dáil, the Taoiseach opined that in his view, privacy rights should not apply to illegal dumping, and that any lawbreakers so identified should be liable to the full force of the law. In addition, he said, the law would be reviewed, and if such a loophole was found in the act, it would be rectified.
Since then, however, things have got no better. Only in recent weeks, the Data Protection Commission has issued a series of reprimands to various local authorities who attempted to use CCTV to crack down on unauthorised dumping, explaining that there is no legal basis for using CCTV for such purposes. This skewed rationale of placing a so called right to privacy ahead of the need to identify a case where the law is being blatantly broken and the countryside despoiled has, needless to say, been lost on the local authorities involved.
By way of further explanation, the Data Protection Commission added that deploying CCTV to detect criminal offences was likely to record those lawfully going about their daily business ‘as well as those few who are breaking the law’. As to just what business an innocent bystander might have lurking at the end of a CCTV-monitored dumping site, the Commission offers no further comment.
The Commission also appeals to the danger of the intrusive consequences for all of us of being recorded on camera as we go about our daily activities. But what, we might ask, of the intrusive consequences on a countryside despoiled by rubbish, of the effect on our morale and social health, and the sense of well-being which a beautiful environment can provide us with?
In today’s world, we are constantly under CCTV surveillance, on the street, in public buildings, on garage forecourts, and often for no good reason. What objection could there be to the use of CCTV to curtail the scourge of illegal dumping?