Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

Concerns about using and interpreting covert video surveillanceCommentary: Covert video surveillance is acceptable— but only with a rigorous protocol

BMJ 1998; 316 doi: (Published 23 May 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;316:1603

Concerns about using and interpreting covert video surveillance

  1. Colin Morley, consultant paediatrician. (
  1. University of Cambridge, Department of Paediatrics, Box 226, Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge CB2 2QQ
  2. a Health Department, North Tyneside Health Care (NHS)Trust, North Shields NE29 0HG,
  3. b Department of Child Health University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Newcastle upon Tyne NE2 2HH
  1. Correspondence to: Dr C Morley, Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, Royal Women's Hospital, 132 Grattan Street, Carlton, 3053, Melbourne, Australia

    I have been an expert witness in seven cases in which covert video surveillance has been used. Using such surveillance and interpreting the videos are associated with problems that may not be apparent to those considering referring patients or setting up such surveillance.

    Covert video surveillance is an infringement of the liberty of the parent and child and should be undertaken only as a last resort—when a group of people has assessed the case and no other way exists to diagnose the child's problem.

    Surveillance is undertaken when healthcare professionals strongly suspect that a parent is harming a child.1 The parent and child are admitted to a cubicle equipped with secret video cameras and observed closely, often over several days. The monitors are viewed secretly and continuously by observers trained to be suspicious of the parent's actions. If they think the child is being harmed they sound an alarm and someone intervenes.

    Summary points

    Covert video surveillance can be difficult to interpret; innocent actions taken out of context may be interpreted as harmful

    The child and parent may be anxious and not behave normally in the circumstances; this may be interpreted as poor parenting

    The technique of covert video surveillance lacks objective and independent scientific evaluation

    If videos are used in court the whole recording should be exhibited to show the parents' action over time, and not just the “bad bits”

    A parent falsely accused may find it difficult to defend himself or herself

    Interpretation of videos

    The observers cannot allow the child to be harmed. If they see something that may lead to an assault they wait only about 25 seconds before intervening. They do this on the assumption that if the action continued, the child would be harmed. This is open to interpretation and speculation. Actions that appeared to me to be …

    Correspondence to: Professor Craft

    View Full Text

    Log in

    Log in through your institution


    * For online subscription