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“Talking” CCTV cameras in Britain: “Big brother” getting silly?

CCTV in Britain has become so pervasive that Britain has 20% of the world’s CCTV cameras despite only having 1% of the world’s population, and anyone who walks through any major town or city centre is likely to get caught on hundreds of them.

Now, the use of “talking” CCTV cameras in town centres has started to be pushed, where the CCTV operators can talk to the people they’re viewing, the ostensible purpose being to tell them off for “anti-social behaviour” and/or to deter crime.

For example, recent reports have them being employed in Middlesborough, Gloucester and Blackpool, and recently it has been announced that talking CCTV should be extended to 20 English towns. According to this report from the Telegraph, the 20 towns that will receive grants for talking CCTV are: Southwark; Barking and Dagenham; Reading; Harlow; Norwich; Ipswich; Plymouth; Gloucester; Derby; Northampton; Mansfield; Nottingham; Coventry; Sandwell; Wirral; Blackpool; Salford; Middlesbrough; South Tyneside; and Darlington and competitions will be held in schools for school children to become the “voice of CCTV” in these areas.

This Orwellian idea seems fundamentally wrong headed for various reasons:

  • As Spy Blog point out, CCTV cameras can often zoom in on people some distance away, thus to get their attention may require the warnings to be very loud. Even without the issue of zooming, the systems would have to be loud enough to be heard over traffic, the noise of people milling around and even roadworks. Thus at night these systems may disturb people’s sleep and during the day they may disturb office workers.

    If there’s more than one person around it may be unclear who it is the CCTV operator is talking to/shouting at, especially when you consider that it can be difficult to know from where noise broadcast over public address systems is coming.

    Spy blog also point out that people could play tricks by broadcasting their own “faked” CCTV shouting in an area where the talking CCTV is used. All it would take is a portable stereo system and loudspeaker, and perhaps some equipment to record “genuine” CCTV shouting.

  • It seems to me that fundamentally there’s a lack of accountability in this scheme. The CCTV operator, located in a room that may well be miles away from the scene, will be shouting orders at people who cannot respond directly to him and who won’t know who’s shouting at them - note that the schemes reported above will use recorded school children’s voices for some bizarre reason! The CCTV operator also won’t hear any verbal responses, and will only be able to rely on seeing a picture of what’s happening. Once you have power with a lack of accountability, it’s only a matter of time before someone abuses that power.
  • The CCTV camera will not give the complete picture of what’s happening and there’s limited scope for further investigation by the CCTV operator to make sure he’s got the right person or that he correctly saw what they were doing, thus it is likely the CCTV operators will mistakenly accuse people of crime or anti-social behaviour, indeed this has already happened in Middlesborough.

It would be far more effective in terms of crime fighting to get police officers pounding the beat, whose visible presence will deter crime and much of what is called “anti-social” behaviour and who will be in a far better position to decide whether someone should be told off or some other intervention should be taken than someone in a far-off who sits watching CCTV all day.

2 new sections added to ID cards briefing document

Posted by James Hammerton @ 9:13 pm on 8 April, 2007.
Categories site news, privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
Edit This Permalink to this article

I have added two new sections to the identity cards briefing document I produced earlier. These sections cover how one gets an ID card and when you will have your identity checked under the scheme.

EU and british government to fingerprint kids

I realise I’ve been a bit slow on reporting on this but here goes anyway. Early in March, The Register reported that the government apparently plans to take the fingerprints of children as young as 11 for biometric passports:

Home Office minister Liam Byrne told ITV1 television’s The Sunday Edition that the Identity and Passport Service wanted to fingerprint all children over the age of 11 and keep their particulars on a database.

The reason, he said, is because it is currently possible get a 10 year passport without biometrics while a child and still be carrying it validly at age 17, the age at which a biometric passport would be issued to someone who applied afresh for their travel permit.

According to this article, the European Union has already agreed to fingerprint children as young as 12:

A Home Office spokesman said it is bound by the rules of the European Schengen agreement, which Britain isn’t signed up to, but has vowed to mirror, to introduce biometric fingerprints to British passports by 2009.

The spokesman said the Europeans hadn’t decided on a minimum age for demanding that someone proffer their biometrics at border control.

However, the European Council pretty much already agreed last summer that children as young as 12 would be stored on Europe’s fingerprint database.

New briefing document: The British National Identity Scheme

Magna Carta Plus has a series of briefing documents that cover specific topics in more detail than is usually the case with news/blog articles, and which may be updated periodically. They can be found here, or via the lower button to the left of the main title bar above.

A new briefing document on the British government’s identity card scheme has just been added. Comments are welcome on both this and the other briefing documents.

Royal Academy of Engineering reports on “Big Brother”

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:45 pm on 30 March, 2007.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
Edit This Permalink to this article

The Royal Academy of Engineering has published a report into the increasing amount of surveillance and data gathering/sharing going on in Britain. According to Henry Porter:

“There is a choice,” say the authors of the report, “between a Big Brother world where individual privacy is almost extinct and a world where the data are kept by individual organisations or services and kept secret.”

No one seems to ask, as Professor Nigel Gilbert does, why supermarket loyalty cards include your name. “Does it [the card] need to identify you? No, it just needs authentication that you’ve bought the goods. It is the same for Oyster cards on the tube, some of which you have to register for.

Add to this the frantic construction of government databases - the NHS spine, the ID card scheme’s National Identity Register (NIR), the police DNA data base and the now total surveillance of British motorways and town centres by a system that retains journey details for two years - and you realise that the surveillance society is not so much imminent as a clear and present danger. It should take no imagination to see that apart from fundamentally altering the human experience, a surveillance society reduces individual liberty and makes each one of us much more open to abuse from the state and big corporations.

This report is to be welcomed because it is produced not by politically motivated liberals, but by scientists who understand the power and reach of surveillance technology. Richard Thomas, the information commissioner said much the same thing in an excellent report last November that criticised the NIR. And there are signs that the penny is beginning to drop on all sides of the house. The cross-party home affairs select committee is to look into the impact of widespread CCTV, the NIR and the police DNA database.

It is little appreciated that each generation must fight for its freedom and the freedom of its children in distinct ways. We have become complacent about our liberties as though they were in our blood, part of a gene pool of democratic virtues that very few other nations are fortunate enough to possess. But it is no exaggeration to say that among all western societies, Britain’s democracy is the most vulnerable from a kind of internal dissolution.

The Register also comments on this report:

The academics and security consultants behind the Dilemmas of Privacy and Surveillance report, released this week, reckon it’s wrong to believe that increased security means more collection and processing of personal information.

They argue that, providing the right engineering systems are put in place, it’s possible have both increased privacy and more security.

We live in an era of ubiquitous CCTV surveillance, identity cards, and corporate databases - to say nothing of the assault on privacy that has accompanied the War on Terror. The report’s authors reckon that engineers have a key role in making sure privacy safeguards are built into systems. For example, services for travel and shopping can be designed to maintain privacy by allowing people to buy goods and use public transport anonymously.

“It should be possible to sign up for a loyalty card without having to register it to a particular individual - consumers should be able to decide what information is collected about them,” said Professor Nigel Gilbert, chairman of the academy working group that produced the report.

However they also state:

The aims of the report’s authors are noble, but some of their suggested solutions, such as protecting personal information by methods “similar to the digital rights management software used to safeguard copyrighted electronic material like music releases”, fly in the face of evidence that such technologies have proved ineffective. In addition, there’s little evidence that governments or large corporations have paid much heed to privacy concerns in implementing systems to date.

Another serious problem, which the report only partially addresses, is that many privacy-invading technologies have already been put into action without the safeguards the academy would like see applied. Chief among such technologies is camera surveillance. The report calls for more research into how public spaces can be monitored while minimising the impact on privacy.

Authors of the study are holding a free evening event at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre in London on Tuesday 27 March.

Again, I intend to comment directly on this report in due course.

British government unveils new “criminal justice” proposals

As reported in the Times, this week the British government unveiled a new set of big brother/police state criminal justice proposals:

Every suspect in contact with the police faces having their DNA placed on a national database under government plans for a huge extension of “Big Brother” Britain announced yesterday.

All children will also undergo regular compulsory checks to discover if they are at risk of turning into criminals. They would face the crime test at key stages of their development, including when they start school and at 11.

The children of prisoners and Class A drug addicts would be “actively case managed” by youth offending teams in the crime strategy unveiled by 10 Downing Street .

The Government said the plan should “establish universal checks throughout a child’s development to help service providers to identify those most at risk of offending. “These checks should piggy-back on existing contact points such as the transition to secondary schools.”

It was not clear whether the check would involve an interview with a child, or if it would comprise a review of school and police records.

Ministers are also planning to allow police to take the DNA of suspects, to expand the use of scanning equipment to help to detect explosive devices in crowds, and to scan mail for drugs.

Useful commentary on these proposals include the following:

The proposals themselves can be found here. I intend to comment on them directly in due course.

Home Office issues 10,000 fraudulent passports

From this report in the Guardian:

An estimated 10,000 British passports were issued after fraudulent applications in the space of a year - and al-Qaida terrorists have successfully faked applications, the Home Office admitted today.

This same government wants to issue ID cards to every adult resident of Britain backed by a database storing all the names they’ve been known by, the details of every occasion on which their identity is checked, every address they’ve ever lived at, every identity document that’s ever been issued to them, and a unique identifier that will index into other government databases holding information about them.

How can we trust them not to also issue thousands of these cards to those who fraudulently apply for them or to keep the data safe when they demonstrate such incompetence with passports?

British government to remove all barriers to banks sharing personal data

The Telegraph reports that the government is planning to remove all the barriers that prevent the sharing of personal data between banks and credit reference agencies:

Last year’s inquiry by the Treasury Select Committee into credit card charges specifically raised the question of over-indebtedness, and called on banks to increase the amount of data they shared on consumers, to prevent those with big debts taking out ever more loans and plastic.

Credit reference agencies have existed for more than a century in the US but arrived in the UK about three decades ago, at a time when banks were becoming more generous with credit cards and other accounts, but wanted to weed out problem debtors. Today there are three agencies, Experian, Equifax and CallCredit which hold a range of data about who we are, where we live, how much we earn and who we bank and borrow with.

Initially, they could only hold information on customers who failed to pay their debts on time, but more recently they were allowed to include data on good account holders as well as bad. However, many banks were reluctant to trade details of their good customers, for fear of losing them to competitors, so they restricted their data sharing to defaulters.

This changed over the past year or so, as political pressure mounted in the face of alarming stories of customers clocking up tens of thousands of pounds of debt, after acquiring a whole pack of credit cards. If people couldn’t be trusted to borrow responsibly, the lobby grew demanding that banks protect rogue consumers from themselves.

Now all the big lenders and banks pass full details of 350 million credit and current accounts opened since the late 1990s to the three agencies, but they do so with our consent. Roughly a decade ago, institutions introduced a clause into their standard terms asking for our permission to share our personal details with the agencies. Anyone who refused to give permission would have been turned down for the loan or account.

However, there are a further 40m accounts opened before banks changed their terms and conditions where customers have not been asked if they are happy for their details to be disclosed to third parties for credit checking purposes. These are called “non-consensual” accounts, and data relating to them cannot currently be shared. It is these accounts which the Government now wants to lift the blackout on. The Department of Trade and Industry is due to report in May on how this will be done.

HBOS’s head of risk, Nick Robinson, says: “The whole business of credit scoring and credit reference agencies is a bit of a dark art, but we want to be responsible lenders, and it is very difficult to assess someone’s levels of debt, unless we have access to all the financial information we can get,” he says. “We understand that many people will not be comfortable with the prospect of their financial data being shared without their consent. But we have tried sending out forms asking for permission and that doesn’t work. It would seem we have to look at some other “non-consensual” arrangement, which is what the DTI is examining now.” (emphasis added to Telegraph article)

Note the attitude indicated at the end of this quotation: getting consent did not work, so now we will do it without consent! (How dare these awkward customers protect their privacy?!) So much for financial confidentiality. Our bank accounts will soon all be open books.

UK’s Commons Home Affairs Committee launches a short consultation on “A surveillance society?”

[Hat tip: Spy Blog]

On the 27th March, the Home Affairs Committee of Britain’s House of Commons launched a consultation on “A surveillance society?”:

The inquiry will consider the growth of numerous public and private databases and forms of surveillance with a direct relevance to the work of the Home Office. They either derive directly from the work of the Home Office and its related public functions or are controversial because whilst they offer the potential to play a part in the fight against crime their use may impinge on individual liberty.

The inquiry will be wide-ranging, considering the following issues:

* Access by public agencies to private databases
* Data-sharing between government departments and agencies
* Existing safeguards for data use and whether they are strong enough
* The monitoring of abuses
* Potential abuse of private databases by criminals
* The case for introducing privacy impact assessments
* Privacy-sharing technologies
* Profiling.

The inquiry will focus on Home Office responsibilities such as identity cards, the National DNA Database and CCTV, but where relevant will look also at other departments’ responsibilities in this area, for instance the implications of databases being developed by the Department of Health and the DfES for use in the fight against crime.

The Committee’s aim is not to carry out a comprehensive detailed review of the subject of the kind recently carried out by the Surveillance Studies Network on behalf of the Information Commissioner (and published in his report on The Surveillance Society in October 2006); but to build on the Information Commission’s work in exploring the large strategic issues of concern to the general public, with a view to proposing ground rules for Government and its agencies.

The deadline for submissions is the 23rd of April, meaning that less than a month is being allowed for this consultation!

Bill enabling your social security info to be handed to the BBC (and others)

Posted by James Hammerton @ 8:15 pm on 1 March, 2007.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
Edit This Permalink to this article

Another “catchup” post.

Back in December, Spyblog reported on the Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill. This bill allows the government to hand over information relating to social security and/or war pensions to another person on request, if that person is:

  • The BBC,
  • A company that the government, the BBC or a nominee of the BBC holds a majority stake in,
  • any person engaged by the BBC, or the secretary of state, or a company as described above, to provide any service connected with switchover help functions (including establishing whether a person needs help with the switchover).

This is apparently related to the upcoming switching off of the analogue signal and its replacement by the BBC’s digital services. The precise information to be handed over will be determined by a statutory instrument once the bill is passed and comes into force. But the explanatory notes, clause 24, gives an idea of the information that the government envisages handing over for this purpose:

The precise details have not been finalised, but it is envisaged that this power will be used to specify for this purpose the following information about an identifiable person, namely—

  • their name, and any alias by which they may be known, marital status (if known), address and date of birth;
  • their National Insurance number;
  • whether they are eligible for any of the benefits that will establish entitlement to help and (if so) those in respect of which they have an award of benefit;
  • the fact that they have ceased to receive such benefits, where that is the case;
  • details of any partner (including details of date of birth and National Insurance number) and whether they receive pension credit, income support or income-based jobseeker’s allowance (to check upon what level of support the household is entitled to);
  • if the qualifying person for disability living allowance is a child, whether the responsible adult or adults is receiving pension credit, income support or income-based jobseeker’s allowance;
  • whether they live in a residential care or nursing home (so helping to ensure that the right kinds of help are available in residential care and nursing home settings);
  • details of any person appointed to act on their behalf (to allow such people to be contacted to alert them to the availability of help);
  • the fact that they have died, where that is the case.

Why should any of this information be handed to the BBC, or to the people employed by the BBC/Secretary of State to help with the digital switchover? As Spy Blog points out, the switching of Radio 4 from long wave to FM, and the retuning of video recorders in order to receive Channel 5 were all achieved without the need for such information to be passed to the BBC (or Channel 5).

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