9 February 2009

Britain is sleepwalking into a surveillance society: how surprising is that?

Is there anyone outside the UK government who thinks its scheme to impose identity cards and other surveillance measures on an -- at best -- reluctant public is anything but an expensive, pointless, anti-democratic folly?

Some 20 percent of the world’s CCTV cameras are engaged in monitoring the streets of densely populated Britain. A fleet of cameras already monitors Britain’s roads and is linked to a number plate database, which allows police to monitor people as they drive around the country. A database containing details of the DNA of both offenders and even non-offenders is already being maintained by Britain’s police forces. And a hugely expensive ID card scheme is currently being hatched which will see every UK citizen issued with a card that will provide biometric identification.

The argument runs that these systems help protect citizens -- sorry, I mean ‘subjects’, as people living in the UK are subjects of the unelected monarch rather than citizens. It helps identify those who don’t pay car insurance, people who kidnap children and burgle houses, say the proponents of the increasing hordes of publicly funded watchers around the country, it is argued.

Even if it’s all true -- and there are grounds for doubt -- there has to be a balance between that and the right of privacy.

Certainly the UK’s (unelected) House of Lords (HoL) seems to be of the opinion that the UK is sleepwalking into a surveillance society. The latest event in this long-running story saw the HoL’s Constitution Committee warn that ‘increasing use of surveillance by the government and private companies is a serious threat to freedoms and constitutional rights’, according to this news story.

The committee said: "The expansion in the use of surveillance represents one of the most significant changes in the life of the nation since the end of the Second World War. Mass surveillance has the potential to erode privacy. As privacy is an essential pre-requisite to the exercise of individual freedom, its erosion weakens the constitutional foundations on which democracy and good governance have traditionally been based in this country."

(A sideline to this story is that that a number of the Lords were recently caught accepting money in return for influencing legislation, so there might be some self-serving going on here. Back to the main story.)

And, in December 2008, the retention of DNA belonging to innocent people was ruled illegal by the European Court of Human Rights, which could mean that the half-million-plus DNA profiles in the database may have to be deleted.

In response, the UK Home Secretary said that the government would “carefully consider the judgement”. She went on to defend the government’s use of that information purely in operational terms: it seems that any form of higher thinking, such as whether it’s democratic to retain the details of innocent people, simply doesn’t enter the equation. It’s reminiscent of the days when environmental issues were not admissible as an argument against planning permission decision for large civil infrastructure projects, such as new motorways.

Meanwhile, the HoL committee said that it was time for a review of the increasing range of measures that the UK government is accumulating to watch the people who pay for it all, and whom the government is allegedly there to represent.

The committee also questioned how effective CCTV is at crime prevention. Hardly surprising when the government’s own research into the effectiveness of CCTV found that street lighting is up to seven times more effective in preventing crime: better street lighting cut crime by 30 per cent, it found.

One of the main worries of campaigners about the rise and rise of biometric data acquisition is that such data are non-refutable. Once they’ve been compromised because the database has been breached, the individual in question has zero recourse. They cannot change their DNA, fingerprints or iris images.

Even if the database remain secure -- and the cavalier manner in which the UK’s civil servants have developed a tendency to leave it lying around on public transport in the form of laptops and memory sticks doesn’t inspire confidence in this regard -- the issue remains about who has access to the data, for how long, and what they do with it. None of these issues has been subject to a public debate.

As one of the government’s own information commissioners said recently: “More of our personal details are kept and for increasingly longer periods of time. They can become out of date or fall into the wrong hands and be used in ways to the detriment of individuals."

Yet the chances of the UK government changing its policies in the light of overwhelming evidence -- as US President Obama has promised to do -- are slim, judging by past experience. It remains only to continue to campaign for change.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi, You may be interested in reading a related recent article, entitled, Big Brother Digest, The Fight for Liberty Begins – Is it too Late, found here that discusses the growing surveillance and loss of privacy in the UK and around the world and what can be done about it.