Tag Archives: surveillance

Surveillance and the insurance industry

Robert Henderson

“Under EU plans, every new car sold in UK will have a ‘black box’ device Gadget contains a phone-like SIM card which tracks drivers’ movements Designed to help emergency services find vehicles in the event of crash Government believes the device will add at least £100 to the cost of cars  Officials also fear it could be used by police to monitor motorists’ moves But ministers admit they are powerless to stop Big Brother technology All new car models will have to include ‘eCall’ device from October 2015” Daily Mail

This is the thin end of a very intrusive wedge.  Even those with  cars without the device fitted – only vehicles  produced or sold before October 2015 – will feel its force because the insurance industry will increase premiums substantially, perhaps grossly,  for cars  without the system.  It is reasonable to believe that within a few years ecall will have become to all intents and purposes compulsory.

The system will allow the monitoring of a person’s driving habits, how often they brake, the severity of braking, speed and so on and possibly the maintenance of the vehicle.  Drive in a way which the insurer considers dangerous and your premiums will go up or your insurance be withdrawn.  Consider  how vital a vehicle is to millions of people simply to enable them to live normal lives –outside the larger British cities public transport is a joke –  and  how many jobs are dependent upon the possession of a driving licence.  Allowing insurers to make judgements based individuals  not on making or not making  insurance claims made by an individual  or general markers such as the age of the person is to place into their hands a massive power over individual lives.

If Insurers can monitor how we drive because technology allows them to you can bet your life  that other areas of life with follow that example. You want some form of personal insurance – accident, life, medical – the insurers may start offering highly preferential rates to those willing to wear a device to monitor their biological functions  as these are affected by  things such as  drinking, smoking, eating and exercising . Indulge too much when it comes to drink  or take too little exercise and  your premiums will rise or your insurance be removed. Such monitoring could also have effect of identifying diseases which could produce the same result.  Perhaps the insurers will require any children you have to be similarly monitored.

You want to insure your house? Insurers could insist that monitors are fitted to record how you live, whether you smoke, whether you leave on taps or  electrical and gas devices when you should not.  Perhaps  insurers will insist on CCTV in every room especially if you have children. Or how about insurers monitoring how many people visit you and how they behave?  You are given to throwing boisterous parties? Up goes your premium or away goes your insurance.

Enjoy pets and want to insure against vet’s bills? An insurer  may require you to fit your animal with monitors to check their health, weight, diet and exercise.  Insurers could even insist on monitors in your house to see how the pet lives.

How about employers? They need heavyweight insurance  for their premises, people, equipment and  damage to people and property not working for or belonging to the employer. Are they to be subject to a general monitoring of their premises, equipment, staff and customers?  You can bet they will be.

Schools, hospitals and care homes would provide a particularly fertile ground for insurers. Not only would these enterprises  have all the surveillance burdens of employers generally, insurers would  probably ask for a much  more intrusive surveillance regime. This would be because of the vast  potential for things to go wrong and the likelihood of claims and court actions arising,  for these are areas of employment  to which the law has long been no stranger, a problem amplified since the 1990s  by the introduction of  “No Win, No Fee” practices into English law.

There are some insurances which are not absolutely necessary,  but most insurances have the potential to become in practice obligatory. If you own a house you must have it insured if you have a mortgage and frankly anyone who did not insure their house even if it is unencumbered by  a mortgage would be mad.  The same applies to home contents.  Vehicle insurance is  legally required. If you travel abroad,  travel insurance is a must and  outside the European Economic Area (EEA) so is medical insurance. Indeed, even within the EEA, medical care can be problematic for those in a country other than their own. The huge sums vets charge these days make owning a pet dog  or cat  a risky proposition without insurance.

There would also be a general reduction in choice for those insurances which really are option such as private medical insurance. Those will of course  be subject to whatever surveillance the insurer decides is needed.  It is not essential that a person have private medical insurance but it does leave everyone with the Hobson’s choice of the NHS if private medical insurance comes with a hefty moral price tag in the form of gross invasion of privacy.

The insurances which an employer must have will frequently  force an individual  to submit to the surveillance if they want the job. This is because employers will  understandably mostly  go for the cheapest insurance. In this scenario, the cheapest insurance will be the one with the greatest surveillance. In time there  would almost certainly be  few employers not requiring  such surveillance.

Apart from gross invasion of privacy which surveillance for insurance purposes could involve, there is also the danger of  the  data  being  misused: for commercial reasons, by the state ,  by criminals or simply by malicious and unscrupulous individuals.

Prospective employers could insist on seeing data collected by previous employers or even the whole life data collected on an individual.   Employers could use data collected on their employees to regulate their  lives, for example, by intervening if an employee is found to be drinking regularly or eating unhealthy food. This interference in private lives could be driven not just by the employer’s wishes,  but also by the insurance companies asking for higher premiums from employers if the data they collect shows some  employees are more likely to be sick or injured .

Data collected, whether by an  employer’s insurer or an  insurer employed by an  individual,  could be sold, legally or illegally,  and used to effectively blacklist  people, both from jobs and from obtaining all forms of credit, everything from  credit cards to mortgages.

The potential for state misbehaviour would be next to unlimited because they could both use actual data collected from an individual to look for any information which could be used to put pressure on the individual or to simply harass them. The state could also arrange to have false insurance  data  about someone put into the public fold to harass and discredit them.

Criminals could use such data to blackmail people or simply disrupt their lives at the behest of a client. Finally, there is the potential for personal revenge. An aggrieved individual with access to the highly intimate data collected by insurers could use it to cause considerable  trouble for someone against whom they  had an animus

In principle, this is an issue which government can stop in its tracks if they have the will. All they would need  to do is pass a law which prevents insurers from using such surveillance strategies.  I say in principle because in the case of the black box in the car the British government’s hands are tied by the EU’s majority voted insistence that all cars will have such equipment fitted in the near future. ( The answer to that particular problem is to leave the EU).  But the British Government is free to legislate to ban  all the other insurance related possibilities for hyper-surveillance.

The scenarios I have outlined may seem far fetched, but who would have believed even a few years ago that a black box in a car would become a legal requirement , a piece of technology which will not merely log your driving and probably car maintenance habits , but where your car (and consequently you) are  for most of the time. All of the equipment needed to intrude into the life of the individual as I have described  already exists: cameras, audio recorders, health monitors, technology monitors.   Moreover, technology is advancing at a frightening pace and it is a certainty that ever more efficient methods to keep people under surveillance will be coming along.  It is also only too likely that the EU will try to extend its surveillance plans beyond the black box in cars. Nor can we have any confidence that out own government will not go down the same controlling route when left to their own devices. There are plenty of  people amongst the British elite who love nothing more than to interfere minutely with other people”s lives.

There will also be an element of voluntary servitude. Many people already willingly wear the technology which allows them to monitor  heart rate, the number of steps taken in the day and blood pressure and so on. Such personal monitors will become every more all encompassing  to allow, for example, diet in detail.  Many people are happy to have CCTV not only in public spaces but in and around their homes.   Children are routinely kept under surveillance at a distance by their parents through smart phones and tablets.

All of this is preparing the ground for insurers ( and employers, commercial firms and governments) to  demand that people wear monitors and carry technology which allows a person’s movements to be tracked.

The stark, hideously unpalatable truth for anyone who  cares for their freedom  is that surveillance is one of those practices which has no natural limit.  There is literally no area of insurance where increased surveillance would not appeal to an insurer for the simply reason they would believe they were minimising risk.  There is literally no limit to what  surveillance powers the state unhindered will  take to  itself on the spurious grounds that it is for the protection of the country.  We need to stamp on this now or we shall wake up in ten years or so and find ourselves in a surveillance society  even more comprehensive than that envisaged by Orwell in 1984. Stopping insurers from being grossly intrusive  would be a good start.

The surveillance state – The practical problems and implications of biometric identities

Note: I wrote this piece at a time when a British identity card seemed a very real possibility because the Blair Government had produced a consultative Green Paper and was pushing the subject hard in Parliament and the media. The Blair scheme was very intrusive because it envisaged not merely government collected data being tied to the ID card but also data collected by private organisations such as the large supermarkets.

Such a card did not materialise then but the threat of it has not gone away. Perhaps it will not come overtly as an ID card but covertly, almost as an emergent property, through the ever expanding government databases (which are in the process of being linked) and the rapid government move to doing all government business online only which not only increases the data held but makes operating with some form of digital ID next to impossible.

Although the essay was written nine years ago, the problems raised still hold true.

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Published in The July 2004 issue of The Individual, the journal of the Society for
Individual Freedom (www.individualist.org.uk).

The practical problems and implications of biometric identities

Robert Henderson

The libertarian and moral implications of ID cards have generated a great amount of newsprint, but much less attention has been given to what biometric based ID cards will mean in practice or to their practicality. This is a serious deficiency because a biometric-based ID card will be an entirely different animal from any
non-biometric-based ID card.

If it is successful, such a system will give a government unprecedented control of the lives of the individual – the ID card would potentially be a licence to legally exist – and if flawed in operation, cause untold disruption and personal misery.

How effective are biometric data as identifiers?

Biometric identifiers are generally presented to the public as foolproof, Big Brother, sci-fi-style technology. The reality is that there is no biometric identifier which is anything like foolproof, nor, as we all know to our daily cost, any computer system which does not regularly crash.

What would be the most likely biometric data to be used? Iris scanning, fingerprinting and facial parameter recognition are the frontrunners, either singly or in combination. Facial parameters are far from foolproof, while fingerprinting, despite what is generally thought, is far from conclusive being decided on points of similarity rather than an absolute individual singularity. One suspects that iris print recognition has similar drawbacks, whatever the “experts” tell us.

Take the expert on biometric testing Professor John Daugman, who is based in Cambridge University. He developed the algorithm for iris recognition. In the Daily Telegraph (12 5 2004) he is reported as saying: ” “The key point is the relative complexity of the iris, compared to, say, the fingerprint,” explains Professor Daugman, who is based at Cambridge University. “The iris is much more random and much more complex, so it Is much more likely to be truly unique.

“Randomness is measured in degrees of freedom. The face bas less than 20 degrees of freedom. Fingerprints have 40 degrees of freedom, but the iris has 200 degrees of freedom. “If we wanted the face to be as complex as the iris, we would need to have five mouths and seven noses…”

Prof Daugman goes on to say that “The technology has never yet given a false match and we have made millions of comparisons so far,” then unblushingly admits there have been problem with eye lashes and eye malformations. I think we should translate his remark as “The technology has never given a false reading where we have been able to get a readable iris print.”

The Home Office Commons select committee recently went to a demonstration of iris-scanning. The Daily Telegraph (7 5 2004) reported: “Members of the Commons home affairs select committee who tried out the technology yesterday were told that up to seven per cent of scans could fail.”

I heard a member of the committee, Liberal Democrat Bob Russell, on Radio 5 (6 May) telling of his experiences. His iris test failed because his eyes watered profusely. Russell also said that the test was as intrusive as a visit to the opticians with lights being shone directly into the eye. He found the experience physically unpleasant.

DNA analysis – which would be more certain – is a theoretical possibility, but whether it would be technically possible now or within the foreseeable future to have a system which could analyse DNA samples quickly enough is dubious. The person checking an identity would have to have a means of checking within minutes a DNA sample taken from a suspect and then comparing that with the DNA record in the central database.

As things stand, the most likely biometric identifiers on the card and database will be fingerprints and facial profiling, the latter to act as a decider if the fingerprint test does not produce a positive identification. The reason why facial profiling will be probably be chosen in front of iris recognition is that the International Civil Aviation Authority is pushing for it in machine-readable passports.

The problems of damage and biometric impersonation

A fingerprint could be damaged by scarring or a temporary injury. Ditto an iris print. As for facial parameter recognition, how effective is that going to be as a person ages? Doubtless the ”experts” will claim that basic facial parameters – breadth of forehead, distance between eyes and such forth – remain constant enough, but as the system is far from foolproof to begin with – Prof Daugman puts it as the least effective of the three biometrics being considered – can we honestly be sure that ageing may not produce sufficient change through, say, muscle relaxation or gum shrinkage, to distort the face sufficiently to cause a false non-recognition result?

Biometric impersonation could conceivably occur with people wearing contact lenses to give a false iris print (the experts such as Prof Daugman swear blind this would not fool a scanner because it uses infra red which would show up a flat plate , ie the contact lens, over the iris, but you know what experts are like) or having fingerprint ”masks” of someone else to wear on their fingers. Further down the line surgical techniques, including genetic surgery, could be used to alter someone’s biometric data.

There is also the question of technological advance generally. We simply cannot envisage what advances may be made which will breach what is now seen as a seemingly secure system.

What of the robustness of the Government’s computer system? Will it break down or even ever get to a stage of development where it can go live? We all know what a mess large government computer projects have been. Why should this, which is even larger and more complicated than those now in existence, be anything other than a mess.

Could biometric cards be successfully forged?

Could biometric cards ever be foolproof in even the narrow sense of being impossible to forge? Could forgeries exist? If biometric data are to be stored on a central database which can be immediately accessed it would be pointless to get a false card if the system would pick up duplicated biometric data. However, someone, for example, a foreigner, whose details have never been on the database, could get a card in a false name using false initial documentation – the initial identification of the person can only be done by good old fashioned methods such as passports and driving licences. There is also, of course, the opportunity for bribery of those operating the system.

If the database programme does not have the facility to check new biometric data against that already on the database, multiple applications for cards under different names could be made.

If there is not immediate verification of the biometric data by reference to the database, forged cards could be used because all the card would do is provide whatever data the forger chooses to put on the card when the card is put into a reader. Moreover, if the card is simply put into a reader and verified with the data held on the database, all that tells you is that the card is in agreement with the database. It does not tell you whether the person who holds the card is the same person. Thus the identities of legitimate cardholders could be copied onto forged cards. The only certain way of stopping this would be to read the data directly from the cardholder and compare it with data held on the central database.

Another problem would be the possibility of a card forger placing a programme on the card which would surreptitiously override the application to the central database and place data contained on the card in the reader in a form in which looked as though it came from the central database, a trick akin to placing videos in security systems to give the impression that a surveillance system is working when it is not.

The initial identification of those applying for cards

A basic problem of false identification exists at the point where the person’s identity is to be established before the identity card is to be issued. Forged documents will be of the type which are now forged, ie without biometric data. Over the generations this might become a smaller problem as children are registered at birth, but for the foreseeable future it will be a major difficulty.

The initial registering of the 60 million people in Britain will also be a massive task. Even if new passports and driving licences are going to require biometric data allowing the database to be gradually built up over years, that will still leave millions of people who neither drive nor have passports. The administrative problems of ensuring all those are issued with cards will be immense.

What non-biometric data could be on the database It would be impractical to include data which will regularly change such as a person’s address or workplace. Yet that is precisely the type of non-biometric data which is most useful in identifying someone. And what will the police do if they pick up a suspect but have to rely on the subject to give them an address?

The administrative problems in the field

These are mind-boggling. Can one imagine the ordinary policeman or immigration officer comfortably or efficiently using complicated machines to read the data either from the cards or directly from the cardholder? Or how about every store or bank requiring one? Think of your average bored teenager serving in a shop and then let your mind boggle at the idea of them taking an iris print. One can all too easily imagine a situation where using the machine is simply not done because the operator cannot be bothered or does not understand the procedure. British passports have been machine readable since 1988. How many are ever machine read? Very few.

Equally demanding would be the mammoth task of maintaining literally thousands (potentially tens of thousands) of machine card readers around the country. The likelihood is that many would break down and in such circumstances identity checks would simply be made by a non-id card means.

The potential practical ill effects of a biometric-based ID card

There are potentially massive practical problems which could arise from such a card. What happens if a person’s card is lost or the biometric data used as an identifier is damaged, e.g. by scarring a fingerprint? How would they actually exist if the card is necessary for daily living?

The failure rate for recognition requests would not have to be large to make the security of the card and its practical use as an identifier problematical. With a database of 60 million (the UK population) even a one tenth of one percent failure would mean 60,000 potential failures, each of which could be repeated many times if the card is needed for a wide range of activity which is the Government’s intention. (A Home Office press release states “crucially, the cards will help people live their lives more easily, giving them watertight proof of identity for use in daily transactions and travel” – http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/n_story.asp?item_id=91). Imagine that you are one of the unlucky ones whose biometrics do not identify you positively, being faced over and over again with the need to prove who you are by other means.

There is also the strong possibility that false information will be put into the database. Governments will not be able to resist the temptation of going beyond the mere identification of someone. They will wish to store details of other things such as criminal records, health data and welfare take-up.

When an identity card was introduced in 1939 it had three purposes: to aid the function of rationing, help conscription and improve security and immigration. When a Commons committee examined the experience of the ID in 1950 (when it was still in force) the number of purposes had risen to 39.

One may be certain that something similar will occur if a biometric card is introduced. Indeed, the schedule 1 of the draft Bill currently doing the “consultation” rounds has a long list of information to be included on the ID register. This includes names, date and place of birth, photograph, fingerprint (and other biometric information), residential status, nationality, entitlement to remain in Britain and the exact terms of the right to remain and a National Identity Registration Number. It will also carry a record of any changes made to the Register.

The more information the more uses to which the card will be put. The more powerful computer technology becomes, the greater the ease and range of sharing information.

There is also the possibility that simple error will result in non-biometric data being entered which will make the identity of the person suspect, e.g., the wrong middle name. At best that would be extremely inconvenient for the individual. Or suppose your health records have the wrong blood group in-putted and you do not know. You have an accident and are taken to hospital unconscious and the wrong blood is used for a transfusion?

More generally, what would happen if the government computer system crashed, either through its own inherent weaknesses or from a malicious hackers attack? How would the world work if everything has become dependent upon the person’s state stored identity? The quick answer is the world would not work.

There is also the question of security. In principle a system could be set up whereby the machine card readers (or readers of biometric data directly from the individual) could have varying levels of access. All readers would identify you as the individual corresponding to the biometric data, but additional information such as health and credit data would be restricted to those with a legitimate reason to know them.

For example, you go to hospital and their reader will allow them to see what your health data is but nothing more. You go to get credit from a store and the shop’s reader gives them access only to your credit status.

Fine in principle, but does anyone believe that any of the information on the card would not rapidly become successfully “hacked” by anyone with the necessary IT skills? There is no reason to believe so because every other “secure” system to date has been hacked, even those with the highest security.

ID Cards are not the problem, the database is

Identity cards as such are a red herring. If the system is sophisticated enough to read from a database and check it immediately against biometric data taken directly from a suspect there would be no need for a card because the person would carry his own identification all the time, i.e. his or her biometric data. It is the database which is the problem.

The overt purposes of the proposed card

What effects would an identity card have on welfare abuse, crime, illegal immigration and security? If the card is voluntary or carrying it is optional, it will little if any effect on the last three items, for any person stopped who does not have a card will simply fail to appear with his or her card at a police station within the seven days as proposed in the draft Bill. However, let us assume that the carrying the card becomes obligatory. What then?

In theory, welfare benefits, including NHS treatment, housing and education could be better controlled, but there is the small matter of 400 million odd citizens from other EU countries to consider who have or shortly will have an absolute right to benefits in the UK. To those can be added millions more from around the world from countries such as Australia and Canada who have reciprocal welfare arrangements with the UK? Will they have to apply for a UK card before they get them?

Perhaps, but what of emergency health treatment? Would any government, when shove comes to push, have the will to deny treatment to those without a card? Moreover, what of failed asylum seekers who are not deported because it is deemed that their native countries are too dangerous to return the failed asylum seeker to? Will they be denied treatment even where the illness or injury is serious but not immediately life threatening, for example, if they are HIV-positive?

An ID card is no help in solving crime generally because the police can only arrest or investigate those people whom they have already identified. In theory a card might reduce fraud based on identity misrepresentation, but that assumes private companies will play ball with the Government’s stated intention that cards will be used “indaily transactions and travel”. As they all have their own cards and identification systems which are getting ever more sophisticated, it is extremely dubious that they will willingly add another layer of expensive security to their own.

As for illegal immigration, a government could make it impossible for a person to work legally in Britain unless they have a card. However, to enforce that would require an immense bureaucracy and a willingness to harass both employers and the general public severely. Employers would have to be regularly prosecuted and subject to stiff penalties for employing illegal labour, while the general public would find that they were essentially slaves requiring the permission of the state to gain employment. In fact, if a card was made necessary for not only employment but welfare and transactions such as opening a bank account or using a credit card, the individual would effectively require the permission of the state to live. Ultimately, the state could control people simply by discontinuing money in the form of notes and coins and making people use cards for all purchases.

As an anti-terrorist measure it would be pretty meaningless because any visitor to this country will not have to have an identity card. As tens of millions of visits are made each year, any terrorist could operate without ever being asked to prove his identity by any means other than would now be employed. As for any home grown terrorist, they will be able to get a valid card and until identified as a terrorist, by which time identity is established, they will be able to use it to move freely in the UK. It is also true that once human beings become reliant on machine checks they tend to treat them as holy writ and become much less generally observant and suspicious.

What if the proposed UK system proves inoperable?

The proposed UK card will not begin to be implemented if at all until 2007 and, even by the Government’s estimates, it will take many years to establish universal coverage of the UK population. But even if the card is never fully implemented by further legislation the government will have a database with the biometric details of most of the population in a few years through their inclusion on passports and driving licences. This will be shared by government departments and other public agencies. It will be subject to hacking and the corrupt release of information by those working within the system.

If such a system is implemented I predict that all those who are pro-ID card will be converted to the anti-card camp the first time they are stopped by the police and asked for it, or the first time their biometrics are checked and show a false negative, or the first time the database crashes and makes transactions impossible because identity cannot be verified, or the first time that they lose their card and find their lives in limbo.

Those who are against ID cards on principle will need no urging to oppose them. But even those who are in principle supportive of the idea of an ID card – and regrettably polls consistently show 70-80% of Britons in favour – may still rationally reject the idea of this card because of the sheer impracticality of the proposed system and its palpable failure to meet the objectives which persuaded them to become supporters.

Big Brother plus is knocking on your front door

Robert Henderson

In  George Orwell’s 1984 there are tele-screens and hidden microphones  dotted liberally around public spaces, but, contrary to what is commonly imagined by those who have never read the  book, there is no universal electronic surveillance of   people  within their homes.  There are two-way screens in  the apartments  of many, especially those of the  IngSoc  Party members – the only party allowed: think the CP of the Soviet Union with a dash of  Nazism –  which allow  people  to be watched and those being watched to interact with  the watchers  But most of the population – the Proles – do not suffer these  direct  indignities. They are not considered a threat to IngSoc  because of their lack of sophistication which allows them to be manipulated and controlled by the application of mass psychology and a ruthless and proactive censorship which continually re-writes the past.

From the details publicly available, the intention of the David Cameron’s Coalition Government is to pass an Act  (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/apr/02/internet-companies-warn-government-email-surveillance) which will do what Orwell did not imagine: introduce electronic surveillance into every home as well as every place of work or public area where the Internet  is used.  Indeed, for anyone who uses a mobile  phone or similar device to enter the Internet , the surveillance will be complete if the person keeps the phone with them all the time. It will be Big Brother Plus.

The proposed Act will force ISPs to store and,   release at the  demand  of the state, details  of who has sent what emails and texts to  whom; who has made phone calls to whom and the websites someone has visited, viz:  “Under legislation expected in next month’s Queen’s Speech, internet companies will be instructed to install hardware enabling GCHQ – the Government’s electronic “listening” agency – to examine “on demand” any phone call made, text message and email sent, and website accessed in “real time”, The Sunday Times reported.” (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/ws/expansion-of-gchq-internet-monitoring-proposed-7606489.html). Presumably services such as Skype and instant messaging facilities such as Yahoo’s will be encompassed by the legislation.  It is also all too easy to imagine every other provider of communications such as search engines being brought within the net.

As things stand, the Government’s intention is not to allow access to the details of phone calls, emails and texts to be accessed without a warrant. But even if that is how the Bill put before the Commons  reads  it is not much consolation because  even if the system is operated honestly , it will probably be easy enough to get a warrant in many cases because the information gained without a warrant can often give an appearance of suspicious activity even where there is no criminal behaviour.

Even without a warrant  the state will be able to make considerable breaches in a person’s privacy. Knowing the times people are doing things; identifying the websites people are visiting and the frequency of the visits;  knowing how long phone calls have lasted, seeing who  people are contacting and  the frequency of their contact is information which could provide  plausible grounds for suspicion, or at least a case which is plausible enough to provide an arguable justification for the issue of a warrant.  It will only be guilt by association, but those issuing warrants may  often accept  association as sufficient grounds for the issue of a warrant, for example, if terrorist connections  are suspected the pressure to grant a warrant would be very strong.

Here are a couple of innocent scenarios which could prompt the granting of a warrant:

-          Someone  has a strong interest in Middle East  politics and regularly visits websites which represent the  views of the likes of Hamas or  someone wishes to research al Qaeda questions.  They would probably go to quite a few sites and perhaps go often, at least over a short period.  The police and/or security services suspect that the person is a terrorist.

-          Someone without a criminal past unbeknown to them has a friend with a serious criminal past. The police suspect the criminal is about to become active again and the person without a criminal past a criminal associate.

There would immense opportunities for  the abuse of power.  In the past quarter century Britain has witnessed  ever more authoritarian behaviour by governments of all colours which includes  either going beyond what the law empowers them to do, for example, the restrictions on free movement  during the miners’ strike,  or the passing of laws which are simply incompatible with a democracy (the vast array of anti-terrorist legislation and the  laws introduced to enforce political correctness such as those relating to “hate crimes” and legislation such as the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 (http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2000/34/contents).

The consequence of this array of authoritarian legislation is not only to provide governments and the public bodies which derive from them with considerable legal powers over the individual, but to also make politicians and public servants ever more arrogant in their application of laws. At the same time the general public  has developed the type of mentality found in totalitarian states where the individual begins to live in continual fear of ending up in the hands of the police and the justice system or, at best, of losing their employment, if they protest against the growing authoritarianism or breach the ever expanding  limits of political correctness.  This latter worry is no idle fear as there are now weekly examples of those deemed to have placed themselves beyond the pc Pale appearing in the mainstream media.  A drunken student makes some racist comments on twitter and ends up with a 56 day prison sentence while  habitual burglars commonly take at least three convictions to go to prison.   The England centre half John Terry is alleged to have racially abused another player  and is charged with a criminal offence.  A young mother Emma West is not only charged with criminal offences after protesting publicly about the effects of mass immigration,  but is held in “protective custody” at the nearest England has to a women’s category A prison,  despite the fact that she said she did not  require protection.   The consequence of this growing public fear is to feed the natural arrogance of those with power to become ever more reckless in their destruction of the necessary freedoms upon which a democracy rests.

It is against this background that the proposed massive increase in surveillance must be seen.  It is impossible any longer to have faith in any checks and balances put in place to prevent  abuse of  such new laws.  At best those empowered to grant warrants to allow access to the content of emails, texts and possibly phone calls (if these are recorded) will be drawn from the circle of people who are sympathetic generally to those with power.  They will , consciously or subconsciously,  tend to look with favour on request from those with whom they have a class interest. We see this time and again with government instigated inquiries  where a judge or senior public servant is appointed and  the inquiry invariably produces a report which avoids damaging a government or politician still in power. The Hutton Inquiry into Dr David Kelly’s death is a first rate example .  A great deal of  doubt  on the official account of Kelly’s death was cast by evidence given before Hutton , yet he produced conclusions which flew in the face of this evidence and simply repeated  the line wanted by the government,  that Kelly had committed suicide.

There would also be scope outright skullduggery  whereby  the state actively connived at producing information which would justify a warrant. It would not be difficult to hack into a person’s computer  and plant information by visiting compromising  websites, for example, child pornography sites. That would then provide prima facie evidence to apply for a warrant. People other than state actors could also  engage in this type of  behaviour, for example, companies, foreign states and private individuals  who wish to harm someone .

Nor is it only material pointing to potentially criminal behaviour which would be brought into play. There is a good deal of information about legal activities which could be used to either blackmail or disrupt a person’s life by releasing information which compromises them.  Suppose someone has been visiting legal pornographic sites or their phone  contacts suggest an affair is being conducted by someone who is married.  Or it could be something political.  A person may have been contacting political  sites which are  represented as being  beyond the Pale by a political elite –  the BNP in Britain would be a good current example.  Secret membership of such a party  or even showing an interest in such a party, could easily cost  the person their job if it was revealed to their employer.  Where a warrant was  granted  the scope for such harassment by the state would be greatly expanded by the additional information they could access.

Once such a system is established the natural human tendency  to reach for information  which is easily available will be given ever greater play. Just as DNA has become the go to police  investigatory tool regardless of its deficiencies as evidence because of the ease with which it can be planted or contaminated,    so will  the reference to a person’s digital records become  the  first port of call for the security services.

There is also the concern that the information seen and collected by the police, security services and other government agencies  will not be restricted on a need to know basis. Public bodies have a habit of spreading information, legally or illegally.  It is also certain that there will be horrendous data leaks because there always are with unencrypted laptops and memory stick being left or stolen in public places.  As the storage of the data  will be in the hands of private companies rather than public bodies, the chance of  security breaches, whether accidental or deliberate through corrupt practices, is likely to be vast.

Can we stop it?

The Government have met with a good deal of resistance both from within the coalition parties and from outside, with calls to either drop the idea as incompatible with a free society to demands for very strong safeguards such as only a judge being able to grant a warrant.  The dropping of the Bill is unlikely because the leadership of  all three major parties at Westminster have accepted that something along these lines should  be done in the name of national security.  The likelihood is a fudge with enough poison in the Bill to contaminate what is left of  personal freedom in Britain, for example, the substance of the Bill being left intact with a few sops such as a warrant having to be issued by a magistrate rather than being left, as is the case with much covert surveillance, in the hands of senior police officer to sanction it.

Past experience  with legislation such as the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) shows that whatever the intention of legislators, powers seemingly granted  for extreme circumstances are used  for humdrum purposes. In the case of the RIPA,  councils have freely used surveillance powers  designed to be used against terrorists and other serious criminals. It is as certain as anything can be, that the proposed new powers would be similarly abused  because  laws to be efficient have to be drafted to cover general  circumstances not particular ones. For example, it might be suggested that the new  law should only apply to those suspected of  endangering the security of the country. That would immediately get the lawyers embroiled in a minefield of definition about what constituted such endangerment.   Add  in all other serious crime and the definitional difficulties multiply.

But even if the new powers were restricted to certain areas of crime, that would not be the end of it. There would be pressure from campaign groups, the general public and politicians to expand it to other areas whenever a crime not covered by the legislation took place could plausibly have been prevented if the powers had been available for that particular class of  crime.

The other great general risk is that the system starts off being policed strictly and the restrictions are subsequently relaxed, for example, initially a judge is required to issue a warrant; this is then eroded to a judge or magistrate and finally to a senior police officer.

If the Coalition’s proposals become law they will  bring the surveillance of  British citizens to something dangerously close to that envisaged by Orwell.  Britain is already the most closely watched nation in the world in terms of CCTV cameras per head of population.  Some of these cameras are interactive in the 1984 sense with interaction between watched and watcher possible.  The ever increasing sophistication of digital technology is making any utterance potentially a public matter through its recording and then placing on websites such as YouTube.  The risk of hacking makes all data potentially open to anyone.   If the state takes to itself the power to be able to look at anything a person does there will be precious little way to go before Britain is not merely at the state of surveillance Orwell envisaged but beyond it because everyone will  be potentially under surveillance.

If the intended Act is passed, all that would  left to complete the surveillance jigsaw  for modern Britain would be for something akin to Orwell’s two-way screens to be placed in every person’s home.  That is the position with the  level of present technology. Going further it is probable that in the future machine implants could be made into the human body to monitor our thoughts or our thoughts be captured by some external means such as a form of brain scanning using energy beams to record what we are thinking.  Impossible that we should ever allow such things you say? Well, think of the enormous inroads into our personal freedom we have already tolerated without anything beyond a little grumbling at best.

If we allow this proposal to go through Big Brother will, in a limited sense, already be within our homes , indeed, within our lives generally.  It will potentially allow our private lives to be revealed to the state without restriction. That is what Winston Smith in 1984 suffered.    If we tolerate such an intrusion what argument would we have against the introduction of state surveillance of all our activity,  including what we did in our homes?  There would be none which carried any great force because we would have already permitted surveillance of a large part of what we do privately . If we are to prevent the ever greater embrace of the state about our personal lives we need to prevent this next step, not the one after.

Human beings have a need for privacy. When  you next hear someone moronically parroting “If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear”  when the question of increased state surveillance is mooted put this question to them: “My I come and stand outside your house with a video camera and record what you were doing in your home? “ I do not think you would find many takers.  Then gently remind the person that when it comes to authoritarian governments, especially those driven by ideology,  no one can ever be sure what does and does not need to be hidden from the state. What is permissible one day  becomes a crime the next.

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