19 March 2009
There is a tendency amongst privacy advocates in the UK to focus on mistakes, or false positives, of ubiquitous surveillance, as well as small scale “disproportionate” uses of surveillance. These two are the key arguments used to fend off plans to increase the level of data collection.
In the first case the argument is that perfectly honest people might be mistaken for crooks because of the imperfect view that any data collection system provides the authorities. Any automated decisions, the argument goes, will inevitably flag up Innocent people, while miss the sought targets, since they will be using an array of evasion tactics to foil it. In its essence, this first criticism is true, but can easily be countered by a good oversight mechanism, including human judgement in the loop, as well as pointing out that the bad guys will never have perfect discipline in implementing counter surveillance measures, and if they do it will be at a great cost. Needless to say the false positive / false negative argument has not been very successful, even though it is a good one.
The second argument is based on proportionality: once surveillance powers are in place for one purpose, such as the prevention of serious crime or terrorism, they will inevitably be used for other unforeseen and disproportionate aims. The key recent example is how local UK authorities are using directed surveilance powers to prevent littering and dog fouling. Similar fears have been expressed about traffic data retention that could be used as part of civil cases, or simply seized for any crime what so ever using established evidence collection laws. Again, this argument is valid but a good oversignt mechanism can take care of those cases, at least in theory.
The reason these arguments are first to be used, as well as ineffective, is that they start from the premise that institutionally those performing the surveillance are “the good guys”, and their aim is to catch “the bad guys” to protect the public. Sure, in the process mistakes happen, but they are in good faith and are rectified since all the good people are on the same side after all. “Bad apples” misusing their surveillance powers will be weeded out, since institutionally the context in which they use these powers is benevolent, and devoid of malice. On can easily see why privacy advocates in the UK have found it easy to use this assumption, since they mostly lobby politicians and have a close relationship with law enforcement as well as industry, who while admitting isolated mistakes will never admit a systematic privacy problem, let alone systematic malicious use of surveillance powers.
The tide is turning on this argument. In the recent months we have witnessed direct interference with the elected political process by the police, namely the raid on the Parliament office of MP Damian Green. As The Register reports “Green’s homes and offices were searched on 27 November following his arrest, on suspicion of leaking embarrassing informationfrom the Home Office.” The information was simply politically embarrassing, not sensitive or national security related. It seem this incident has challenged in the mainstream that those in charge of surveillance will simply act in the public interest, and other cases of mass political surveillance have since seen the light:
- First a company named The Consulting Association was found to keep an extensive database about construction workers, listing their trade union activity, past disputes with employers, and other sensitive personal information. It was providing a vetting service to the building industry to ensure that those active in the labour movement, basically do not get jobs.
- Secondly a Guardian investigation uncovered that the Metropolitan Police keeps a database of people attending protests, despite them never have been in trouble with the law, and specifically targets journalists covering protests. (The video is highly recommended.)
These are no more isolated abuses, but systematic operations running for many years, and supported at the highest level of management of both organizations. In its editorial the Guardianput its finger on the key argument against surveillance powers by finally saying out loud: “today’s revelations underline the perils surveillance represent for democracy […]”. These worries are now being echoed at the highest echelons of the political system, as The Register reports regarding the Policing complaints at the recent Climate Camp:
“The problem with incidents of this kind, according to Norman Baker MP, who addressed the meeting on the Climate Camp protest yesterday is that they look suspiciously like police-made law and go hand in hand with the politicisation of the police. He said: “The IPCC exist to investigate allegations of individual misconduct by Police Officers. They are not there to investigate systemic abuses of power, which is what seem to be going on in cases such as the Climate Camp.”
“I am a strong supporter of the Police. But there looks increasingly to be a need for additional oversight into the ways in which they interpret the law.”