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Recent articles on the erosion of British liberty

It’s tough keeping up with everything civil liberties related at the moment. I feel one way through the thicket is to do some roundups on the articles that have appeared recently. On that basis, here’s a selection of recent articles on the issues raised by David Davis’s resignation:

  • “This surveillance onslaught is draconian and creepy”. Marina Hyde, writing in the Guardian, highlights the absurd creepiness and extent of state surveillance these days:

    The past few years have thrown up dozens of instances which made one wince to be a citizen of this septic isle, but a personal low came with the discovery that 500,000 bins had been fitted with electronic tracking devices. Transponders in bins … Could any morning news item be more designed to force one back against the pillows, too embarrassed about one’s country to start the day? Yes, as it turned out. A couple of months ago it was discovered that Poole borough council, in Dorset, had used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act - designed to track serious criminals and terrorists - to determine whether a school applicant and her parents lived where they said they did. They did, and were appalled to discover they had been spied on for three weeks, the subject of surveillance notes such as “female and three children enter target vehicle and drive off”. Target vehicle, if you please! The thought of some deep-cover council drone jotting this stuff down as though it were an elite Delta Force operation is not as funny as it is horrifying.

    Just who are these people, these swelling legions of unelected, ill-qualified monitors who wield such extraordinary power in our surveillance society? Clarification in one case came last year, when the civilian in charge of a Worcester police station’s surveillance team was suspended after detectives found, among one day’s footage, a 20-minute sequence of close-ups of a woman’s cleavage and backside as she walked oblivious through the streets. Whether the woman ever discovered she was the star of a kind of pervert Truman Show is not recorded. But the offending monitor escaped with a warning and was - unbelievably - back in post within weeks.

  • Bruce Schneier, a security expert, questions the usefulness of pervasive CCTV:

    To some, it’s comforting to imagine vigilant police monitoring every camera, but the truth is very different. Most CCTV footage is never looked at until well after a crime is committed. When it is examined, it’s very common for the viewers not to identify suspects. Lighting is bad and images are grainy, and criminals tend not to stare helpfully at the lens. Cameras break far too often. The best camera systems can still be thwarted by sunglasses or hats. Even when they afford quick identification — think of the 2005 London transport bombers and the 9/11 terrorists — police are often able to identify suspects without the cameras. Cameras afford a false sense of security, encouraging laziness when we need police to be vigilant.

    The solution isn’t for police to watch the cameras. Unlike an officer walking the street, cameras only look in particular directions at particular locations. Criminals know this, and can easily adapt by moving their crimes to someplace not watched by a camera — and there will always be such places. Additionally, while a police officer on the street can respond to a crime in progress, the same officer in front of a CCTV screen can only dispatch another officer to arrive much later. By their very nature, cameras result in underused and misallocated police resources.

  • “A quarter of adults to face anti-paedophile tests”. The Telegraph’s Christopher Hope reporting on the new “Independent Safeguarding Authority” and the requirement or anyone doing voluntary or paid work with children to submit to CRB checks:

    From next year the new Independent Safeguarding Authority will require any adult who come into contact with children or vulnerable adults either through their work or in voluntary groups to be vetted.

    But Prof Furedi’s report, Licensed to Hug, highlighted examples of when adult-child relationships were distorted by the need for CRB checks already being required by schools and other organisations.

    In one example, a woman could not kiss her daughter goodbye on a school trip because she had not been vetted.

    In another, a mother was surprised to be told by another parent that she and her husband were “CRB checked” when their children played together.

    In a third example, a father was given “filthy looks” by a group of mothers when he took his child swimming on his own in “a scene from a Western when the room goes silent and tumbleweed blows across the foreground”.

    Prof Furedi details how one woman was made to feel like a “second class mother” because she was barred from a school disco because she did not have a CRB check.

    Prof Furedi, a sociology professor from Kent University, said that “adults are no longer trusted or expected to engage with children on their own initiative”.

    He said: “When parents feel in need of official reassurance that other parents have passed the paedophile test before they even start on the pleasantries, something has gone badly wrong in our communities.

    “We should question whether there is anything healthy in a response where communities look at children’s own fathers with suspicion, but would balk at helping a lost child find their way home.”

  • David Davis himself, writing for Conservative Home, explains his actions:

    My conduct may seem eccentric in the eyes of some - but my motive is plain and simple. I have deliberately embarked upon an unorthodox course of action to dramatise the damage being done to the country I love, the mother of democracies, by the Government’s cavalier disregard for the liberties we have fought for down the centuries.

    Plans to lock up terrorist suspects for up to 42 days without charge are but the latest in a long line of repressive and intrusive measures visited on this country by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. To take one example, there are now 266 state powers allowing officials to force their way into your home. Six hundred public bodies have the authority to bug phones and emails and intercept the post. And God help you if you put out the wrong kind of rubbish or attempt to get you child into one of the few schools not ruined by a decade of Labour government. Gordon’s neighbourhood spies are watching.

    My hostility to the Government’s bloated and unworkable £19 billion ID card scheme and my dismay at its creation of the largest DNA database on earth stuffed with the details of a million innocent people are well known.

    But this is not how some of Metternich’s latter-day disciples in the parliamentary lobby have generally chosen to report my words and deeds. Some have even called it a “moment of madness”. Well I think it is madness that, when someone takes a principled stance on a matter of vital national interest, it sparks such a bewildered response from certain quarters of the Westminster village. In truth, I thought carefully about my decision to force a by-election on a national issue.

    Fortunately, the Westminster Village does not have a monopoly on political comment and reporting. In marked contrast to some rumour-mongering in the media, the blogosphere rapidly is becoming the real forum of popular debate and it offered a very different take. Frankly, I was surprised and humbled to find that this this site’s survey of Conservatives found that 65 per cent were inspired by my decision.

  • The UK Liberty blog, has excellent coverage of the parliamentary debate over “42 days”, amongst some very revealing exchanges highlighted, there is this one with David Davis on whether there’s any evidence to extend the current 28 day limit:

    There was some very interesting information from David Davis:

    Let us start with Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. In his evidence to Parliament, the commissioner said explicitly:

    “We have never put forward a case that there is evidence of a need for an extension”. ——[Official Report, Counter-Terrorism Public Bill Committee, 22 April 2008; c. 11, Q3.]

    He based his support for 42 days on “a pragmatic inference” based on trends in a number of plots and on those plots’ complexity. In support of that, he and his counter-terrorism chief initially claimed that 15 terrorist plots had been thwarted since the 7/7 bombings. It was on that basis that he presented his evidence to the Bill Committee. But then it transpired that there had been a mistake. The corrected evidence revealed the true picture, which is that between 2003 and 2005, there were nine plots, three a year, and there have been four since the beginning of 2006, two a year. So, the number of plots, far from increasing, has actually decreased over the past three years. That is a good thing, but it is not an argument for extra powers, and although we should not underestimate the threat, we should not overstate it either.

    The third witness was Ken Jones, the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, who said that the police, operating under the current 28-day limit were “up against the buffers”. That is the claim being made: not that we might be, but that we are up against the buffers. He based his judgment on the most complex counter-terrorism investigation in our history, Operation Overt, in respect of the alleged plot to blow 10 airliners out of the sky at Heathrow in August 2006. In that case, five people were held for 27 or 28 days. One can see why that superficial analysis leads us to the idea that we are up against the buffers, but it is only a superficial analysis. I asked Mr. Jones yesterday whether he had examined the detailed evidence in Operation Overt. He told me that he had not had the opportunity. I did look at the evidence. Three of the five suspects were held for the maximum period. More than half were innocent.

    To which Frank Field replied, “No, they were found not guilty.”

    Um, that does mean innocent - indeed formally found innocent. Davis took it in his stride:

    Innocent. That demonstrates— [Interruption.] We can reiterate the argument that we had last time. The last time I used “innocent”, Labour Members exploded in uproar at the idea that those people might be innocent, so I told Labour Members that I had asked the police at the time whether they were concerned sufficiently to put those three people under control orders. “No,” they said. I asked whether they were sufficiently concerned to put them under overt or covert surveillance? “No,” they said. I asked whether they were carrying on any further investigations into them? “No,” they said.

    all the evidence on the only two suspects charged after 21 days was in the possession of the police within four and 12 days respectively. I suspect that that is why the Director of Public Prosecutions does not believe that the extension is at all necessary or foresee circumstances in which it will be necessary in future.

    Chris Bryant intervened with the by now well-worn implication that the police will get the huff and sulk if suspects are let go and subsequently blow something up:

    The right hon. Gentleman is basing his whole argument on his assertion that there is no evidence that proves that these powers are necessary. Surely the only evidence that there could possibly be would be a catastrophic failure of the criminal justice system that meant that the police were unable to charge somebody before the end of the 28 days and that person then going on to commit a major atrocity. That is precisely what we are all trying to avoid. [ Interruption. ]

    If they were not subject to surveillance and/or control order we truly have problems - but I have more faith than Chris Bryant.

  • Bruce Schneier again has an article on “The War on Photography”, highlighting how photographers are being subjected to increasing amounts of harassment by the authorities, many of his examples come from Britain:

    What is it with photographers these days? Are they really all terrorists, or does everyone just think they are?

    Since 9/11, there has been an increasing war on photography. Photographers have been harassed, questioned, detained, arrested or worse, and declared to be unwelcome. We’ve been repeatedly told to watch out for photographers, especially suspicious ones. Clearly any terrorist is going to first photograph his target, so vigilance is required.

    Except that it’s nonsense. The 9/11 terrorists didn’t photograph anything. Nor did the London transport bombers, the Madrid subway bombers, or the liquid bombers arrested in 2006. Timothy McVeigh didn’t photograph the Oklahoma City Federal Building. The Unabomber didn’t photograph anything; neither did shoe-bomber Richard Reid. Photographs aren’t being found amongst the papers of Palestinian suicide bombers. The IRA wasn’t known for its photography. Even those manufactured terrorist plots that the US government likes to talk about — the Ft. Dix terrorists, the JFK airport bombers, the Miami 7, the Lackawanna 6 — no photography.

    Given that real terrorists, and even wannabe terrorists, don’t seem to photograph anything, why is it such pervasive conventional wisdom that terrorists photograph their targets? Why are our fears so great that we have no choice but to be suspicious of any photographer?

    Because it’s a movie-plot threat.

    Note that, in the original, the above paragraphs contain numerous links (too many to copy over easily) substantiating the claims of harassment, questioning, detention etc which are worth following up. E.g. one of the links is to this article in Amateur Photographer. Check out the poster featured in that article, which is used by the Metropolitan police. I suspect this sort of campaign is what lies behinds incidents such as this one in London’s Oxford Street.

It seems clear to me that Britain is becoming an increasingly petty, officious, fearful, paranoid and authoritarian society…

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