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Jacqui Smith on “Protecting rights; Protecting Society”

Posted by James Hammerton @ 6:53 pm on 21 December, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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[Hat Tip: Spy Blog and UK Liberty]

Jacqui Smith, Britain’s Home Secretary recently gave a speech on “Protecting rights; Protecting society” to Intellect, a trade association for the technology industries, in which she sought to set out the government’s position on subjects such as CCTV, the use of RIPA and the DNA database.

Smith’s speech contains numerous failings, however for lack of time for a comprehensive response, I shall limit myself to the following:

NB: The links in the above list will only work in the permalink view of this article. I’m not sure how to persuade Wordpress to do something more intelligent with them.

It seems to me these points alone seriously undermine the credibility of the speech. Those curious about other failings are referred the Spy Blog and UK Liberty responses to her speech, linked to at the top of this article, to see other topics covered. Meanwhile, I explain each of the claims made above in the remainder of this article.

I contend that the Home Secretary:

  • Fails to acknowledge the extent of blanket surveillance of the population in the UK, when she writes:

    Are we, really, a nation under CCTV? Do we, today, live in what critics call a surveillance society?

    I don’t believe so, not for one moment.

    Well for a start, it is difficult to avoid CCTV cameras in Britain these days, so the phrase “One Nation under CCTV” seems quite accurate to me. Whether I’m on the street, on the bus, on a train, in a shop, in a restaurant, in a shopping centre or in the public areas of a hotel, block of flats or other building, there’s always some cameras watching the area which will capture my movements. Widely reported figures are unfortunately, guesses from several years ago, and it could easily be more than that. The fact is CCTV has grown in a largely unregulated manner to become a pervasive fact of life. Jacqui at least acknowledges that CCTV exists, and defends it on the grounds its popular, but precisely why she thinks “One Nation Under CCTV” is inaccurate is never explained.

    However, the pervasive use of CCTV is not the only reason to think Britain has become a surveillance society. There is also the increasing use of other forms of blanket surveillance, which don’t get a mention in her speech, such as:

    • Automated Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) and “average speed” cameras. ANPR is used to record our movements on roads, in petrol stations, as we enter/exit congestion charging zones (in London’s case, in real time, 24/7, whether charges are in force or not) and increasingly in the “average speed” systems that, off necessity, will record our journeys between pairs of cameras in order to work out our average speeds between those cameras, over large areas and apparently on all major roads. Note that this extends the surveillance from simply recording your movements as picked up on individual cameras (which an investigation would need to piece together) to recording your vehicle’s movements within, into/outof, or between large areas and on major roads.
    • Blanket surveillance of aircraft journeys, e.g. the many pieces of information recorded by the authorities each time you book/take a flight. Wikipedia has a useful summary and this approach is being expanded to include other modes of transport.
    • Blanket surveillance of who you communicate with via the phone or the net.

      Phone and internet companies create records of who you call, the location of your mobile phone, which websites you visit and what emails or text messages your receive. The initial creation of these records is simply a consequence of providing the services and the need to bill people and ensure messages get to their destinations. Until about the year 2000, such data would have been kept for as long as necessary to perform billing or other business purposes, and would then be destroyed (compliance with the DPA, plus the cost of storing such data would have ensured this). Several developments since then have changed things:

      • The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act allows the police, security services and HM Revenue & Customs (the same people who lost the child benefit data) to demand such data without a warrant.
      • The “Snooper’s Charter” enabled local councils, hundreds of public bodies and government departments to also demand this data, in most cases without a warrant.
      • The government pushed for mandatory retention of communications data for at least a year (this was initially pursued through post 9/11 legislation), and eventually persuaded the EU to adopt this measure via the Data Retention directive, which is to be implemented by March 2009.
      • The government has since proposed, and despite dropping a related bill from the last Queen’s Speech, appears to still be pushing for a central database to collect all this communications data in one place, enabling extensions of the length of time data is retained for without putting costs onto the communications providers, and enabling the government to do what ever it wants with this data.

    I could go on, but each of these individually is evidence of an emerging surveillance society.

    Taken together, it seems to me clear that Britain has in fact become a surveillance society because surveillance of the general public has become pervasive.

    And that’s before considering upcoming/incomplete schemes such as the National Identity Scheme, ContactPoint or the NHS electronic spine, or considering surveillance schemes that are merely crudely targetted (e.g. CRB checks for all those working with children) rather than blanket surveillance schemes. It’s possible all this might explain why a recent survey found that 79% of those polled agreed that Britain can be described as a surveillance society. Smith apparently disagrees, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

  • Claims she welcomes debate on the surveillance society but is dismissive of 2008’s prime opportunity to debate these issues. The two relevant quotations from her speech are (extending an earlier quotation):

    Are we, really, a nation under CCTV? Do we, today, live in what critics call a surveillance society?

    I don’t believe so, not for one moment. But I welcome the debate.

    And (from earlier in the speech):

    In June, the MP for Haltemprice and Howden booked himself a footnote in the history books by resigning from parliament and the Conservative front-bench, only to return to the Commons a month later.

    She is of course referring to the resignation of former Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis MP in direct protest at the onslaught on civil liberties, when he said:

    Whether it is talking tough on terror, the rise of the database state or the growth of a surveillance society, the size, role and reach of government is now out of control. This government increasingly treats our fundamental freedoms with disdain. I believe it is time to take a stand.

    Davis threw a gauntlet down and provided a prime opportunity to debate these issues. The government, of which Jacqui is a member, responded by refusing to stand a candidate in the subsequent election campaign. The PM gave a vacuous and misleading speech, mentioning, but failing to address, the points Davis made. After that the government “moved on”, burying the debate by refusing to either stand a candidate, or otherwise defend their policies in the election campaign. Had they engaged in the debate, they would have had strong media coverage and could have explained and defended their policies. They refused a prime opportunity to do so, and Smith now rubbishes the MP who sought to generate that debate. So until evidence of a change of heart comes along I don’t believe you Ms Smith when you say you welcome this debate.

  • Fails to acknowledge the distinction between targetted surveillance directed at suspects and mass surveillance of the general public. This follows from the failure to mention the pervasive/blanket nature of the surveillance infrastructure that exists in Britain today. But it is also in evidence in passages such as the following:

    Ten days ago, on a trip to Tower Hamlets, I saw how an entire neighbourhood had had their daily lives made a misery for months by the behaviour of people in one particular flat – until the local council and the police got a premises closure order and boarded it up. That order was only made possible because covert CCTV had helped capture the evidence of anti-social behaviour and crime.

    There are literally hundreds of cases like this, where the police and local authorities access investigatory powers like covert surveillance and communications data under RIPA – the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act – and use these powers fairly and squarely to help law-abiding people to hit back against the yobs and bring criminals to book.

    The case cited, and the hundreds of cases like it referred to, all involve targetted use of CCTV against people suspected of crime/ASB. This is probably justified in these cases. Yet Ms Smith fails to even mention the distinction between surveillance targetted at those suspect of involvement in crime and blanket surveillance of the general public and seeks to justify the government’s general approach with reference only to targetted surveillance when the government is increasingly engaging in blanket surveillance.

  • Fails to acknowledge the increasing linkage of disparate data sources about the general public that the government is engaging in.

    There is no mention of the extent to which the government is expanding its powers to collect data together from different sources, enabling data to be shared across government departments and public bodies. There are several policies contributing to this, including (at minimum):

    • The National Identity Scheme (NIS). The National Identity Register (NIR) will store, in one central record, the identification numbers the government issues to you such as your driving licence number, passport the NIR will store indexes into the relevant databases. Additionally, the NIR will store a National Identity Registration Number (NIRN) indexing your NIR record. Anyone storing this number in their database thus enables their database to also be indexed from the NIR. This will enable easy linking of any database to the NIRN.
    • Transformational Government, which explicitly seeks “joined up”, “shared services” in the public sector, and therefore seeks to share data across different departments and public bodies.
    • New data sharing powers being introduced in the Coroner’s and Justice Bill will allow Ministers to by-pass the protections of the Data Protection Act in order to allow easier sharing of data in the public sector - this power will be exercised by regulation, and thus Parliament will at most be a rubber stamp.

    Despite all the platitudes she makes about “safeguards”, “proportionality” and “common sense”, nowhere does Ms Smith discuss the risks of such sharing of data, or how any safeguards that are proposed will minimise those risks or why the expected benefits of doing so outweigh the risks being taken. Far from opening the debate up, she’s avoiding mention of the most risky (from a privacy oriented view) policies this government is pursuing. And given this government’s total incompetence at securing the data it shares at the moment, the fact they propose making it easier for data to be shared, when they’ve yet to demonstrate they’ve learned how to secure their existing uses of data, suggests to me the government does not accord the safety of personal data a high priority.

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