Mass political surveillance in the UK is alive and well!

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:

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.”


2 Responses to “Mass political surveillance in the UK is alive and well!”

  1. Steven said

    The National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit (NETCU) seem proud of their political surveillance role — they even show it on their homepage.

    It’s interesting to note that their remit of “coordinated response to domestic extremism” includes protecting the UK from clowns, people with silly hats, and feather dusters.

  2. Clive Robinson said

    The problem with arguing for more “oversight” is the “by whom” question.

    If as you argue the problem has become wholesale/endemic within the “establishment” and it is an argument with merit. Then how do you find “experianced” “untainted” people to make the selection of other “experianced” “untainted” people to do the oversight?

    Even at the best of times people become “tainted” or “corrupted” in many ways.

    One of which is by “long ascociation” giving rise to sympathetic “buy in” on institutional “group think”.

    Which inevitably gives rise to the consiquent “them and us” mentality which engenders “hidden agendas” and a “nod and a wink” undocumented procedures and understandings, and the consiquent secrecy and “turn a blind eye” attitude. All of which was once identified many years ago and given the title of “Canteen mentality”.

    Then there is the problem of being sufficiently experianced. This generaly requires a fairly intamate working knowledge to a quite senior level. This ability usually requires a person at a senior level within the “establishment”, who is aware of the “of book” way things realy work in such “them and us” organisations.

    And generaly such a person would only have reached a senior level by thinking the way their superiors liked…

    Therefore the process of getting experiance effectivly “taints” the people who would do both the oversight and those who select them.

    A recent example of this was the IPCC selection of the “City Police” to investigate the G20 abuses by the “Met Police”.

    It was obvious to anybody who had eyes and a little “local knowledge” (ie red and white cap and arm flashes) that the majority of the Police officers photographed at the “push incident” in question where “City Police” oficers.

    Especialy when the photographs where splashed all over newspaper front pages and center spreads…

    It took an Ex senior policeman (Brian Padwick) to state publicly that “at least three of the officers where City Police” for the IPCC to back track…

    With clear conflicts of interest like these happening you can only conclude as Shakespear once did “there is something rotten in the state of Denmark”.

    Oversight of this sort obviously does not work further examples are the FSA, HSA, Ofcom, and just about all the utility regulators. Oh and University disiplinery procedures.

    Then of course the prime example was that of the man in charge of looking into MPs expenses and conduct. When he started to use his teeth (powers) in the way you would expect, he was shortly there after replaced…

    Oversight of the establishment by those of the establishment is never going to be free of “taint”.

    Unfortunatly oversight by those not of the establishment is not going to be effective due to their lack of inside knowledge about “how things realy work” within the establishment.

    Therefor I suspect the next solution most will think of will be by more open and accountable procedures. Where any interested party may have access to all the information at any time without let or hinderance.

    But then you only have to look at the mess “freedom of information” is in to see how easily that can be thwarted by the establishment (ie by alowing the entity being investigated to say it would be to expensive to provide an answer…).

    The more you think about it the more you come to favour root and branch surgery with a chain saw, starting by decapitation at the more senior levels. However that is not conmensurate with the effective running of an organisation…

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