Sleepwalking into Surveillance

A few years ago, the UK “information commissioner” Richard Thomas warned that the UK could “sleepwalk into a surveillance society” as result of the measures being brought into place (BBC). It seems he was mistaken with this, and the reality is the UK will run headlong into the surveillance society while willingly blinded to the loss of our civil liberties and freedoms.

The news today has been largely dominated by the decision to allow the Metropolitan Police access to a real-time feed from London’s congestion charge cameras. The BBC headlines it:

Road pricing cameras could be used by police to track drivers’ movements in England and Wales under new proposals.

Now this is a fairly innocuous way of presenting the information, and you would be forgiven for thinking it was perfectly normal and a reasonable measure to prevent crime. Sadly, this isn’t the case. For a start, allowing this breaches the law (Data Protection Act demands information only be used for the purposes for which it is collected) so we get caught in the problem of breaking the law to uphold the law.

More importantly (and with due concern over “slippery slope” arguments) this is a worrying sign that governments feel in no way compelled to keep to promises made by previous offices. When Congestion Charging was forced upon the public it was made clear that this would never become a “covert” surveillance method. Yet less than a decade later it is.

We hear similar promises regarding the collection of a national DNA database, of ID Cards and the like. Is it possible to have a more obvious example of why it is important that every right lost is only done so after serious, open and careful deliberation? Even now, the news was heavy with more weasel words from various groups about how important it was that the police have access to this data to help “save lives.”

As a summary of what I feel were key issues today we have:

On Tuesday, the Home Office announced that anti-terror officers in London would be exempted from parts of the Data Protection Act.

Again, we get caught in that wonderful problem of allowing law enforcement to break the law. Not only do these people want to arrest innocent people and detain them almost indefinitely (as long as it takes to make a case against them – what madness), not only are they almost completely immune from public oversight, but what leftovers of the law they do have to follow is now being removed. For a moment, I had a flashback to the late first century Roman Empire and the Praetorian Guard… When my children are adults, will the country be run by the Metropolitan Police?

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said the change was needed to deal with the “enduring vehicle-borne terrorist threat to London”.

The words “Yeah, Whatever” spring to mind here. This is the great monster under the bed in recent years. Every bit of law has to be shown to help fight terrorism and if it does, the public will love it no matter how insane it is. The implication from the Home Secretary’s words here is that if the police had full access, they would have prevented the failed bombing attempts recently. For this to have any validity you have to make some assumptions, the most basic of which is that the potential bombers were already high enough on the “radar” to make the police concerned when they entered the congestion zone. I doubt they were but it is possible.

If they were, however, there already exists sufficient legislation and capability for the police to remotely monitor their movements. This would be perfectly legal. The question remains, what aspect of the current law failed? Politicians (and the tabloids) love scary phrases which say nothing but imply so much that people fall over themselves to agree. For example, look at this:

A Home Office spokesman hit back at claims the documents reveal a disregard for public concern over civil liberties.

“The experience of the last few weeks has shown that this is a necessary tool to combat the threat of alleged vehicle-born terrorism.

See what I mean. A tool combat a threat of alleged vehicle born terrorism. An empty phrase – this way the “spokesman” can’t be caught out in the future when people challenge specifics, but it carries enough menace that some people are falling over themselves to support the idea. Even though this is the “tip of the iceberg” in real terms:

…But internal documents mistakenly circulated around Westminster by the Home Office contain details of a more wide-ranging plan to track journeys throughout England and Wales. …

Mistakenly circulated… Basically this means they didn’t want people to know this, even though they were planning it. So much for an accountable government. This is equally worrying when local councils are being “blackmailed into introducing road pricing” which presumably would be monitored by ANPR cameras…

As I said at the start, we aren’t sleepwalking into a surveillance society, we are sprinting.

[tags]Society,Culture, Law, Terrorism, Terror, Civil Rights, Civil Liberties, DPA, Data Protection Act,Philosophy, Surveillance, Big Brother[/tags]