Thursday, November 02, 2006

They know all about us

You thought states that spied on everything its citizens did only existed in Eastern Europe in the dark days of the Cold War. Think again. Thanks to New Labour, Britain is already a fully-fledged surveillance state, with people more spied on by the authorities and the corporate sector, often working hand in hand, than any other industrialised country. The Surveillance Studies Network report published today for the Information Commissioner says there are up to 4.2 million CCTV cameras in Britain - about one for every 14 people. Surveillance ranges from the US national security agency monitoring all telecommunications traffic passing through Britain, interception of emails by British security agencies, key stroke information used to gauge work rates to global positioning satellite information tracking company vehicles. The report also highlights "dataveillance" - the combination of credit card, mobile phone and loyalty card information for marketing purposes. Not only that, Britain has loser laws on privacy and data protection than anywhere else. The report's co-writer Dr David Murakami-Wood says: "We really do have a society which is premised both on state secrecy and the state not giving up its supposed right to keep information under control while, at the same time, wanting to know as much as it can about us."

The report ridicules the notion that people have "consented" to surveillance and says: "The issue of choice can be seen at work throughout the criminal justice system. We do not choose to be monitored by CCTV as we walk though public space, and no one has chosen to have their vehicle movements logged at the ACPO’s ANPR Centre. Arrestees do not choose, and are coerced, into providing fingerprint and DNA samples, which will be permanently logged on the police national database, even if they are released without charge. And, while a person cannot be forced to give a urine sample to test for the presence of drugs, it is hardly a matter of choice, as refusal can result in a fine, imprisonment or both." Turning to the forthcoming ID cards scheme, the report adds: "Moreover, existing identifiers relate to single roles, as drivers, consumers or tourists whereas the ID card system gives the government powers to monitor activities across a range of roles that include all of these as well as that of citizen." On the blurring of public and private boundaries, the authors note whilst both sectors share information, more tasks of government are carried out through a sometimes complex combination of public, private, voluntary-sector and market mechanisms.

The hard-hitting report tries to suggest solutions in new forms of regulation and privacy protection, presumably enforced by the very same state that built the surveillance web in the first place. But there is no way that the state is going to give up its new powers, which it accumulated mostly by stealth. This is a self-expanding industry which the government is promoting. For example, New Labour is vastly increasing the budget of MI5, the internal spy agency, so that they can recruit more watchers and analyse the vast amounts of data collected on all of us every day. The surveillance state is a fearful state, concerned by the fracturing of once-settled communities and the disdain that ordinary people show for the authorities. It is a state that is fast losing credibility for its inability to tackle the most basic questions such as climate chaos or housing. The inescapable logic of the surveillance state is totalitarian rule, where even the most basic democratic rights are suppressed in the interests of "community safety" and "national security". This state is definitely not for turning and certainly not for regulating. Dismantling the surveillance state will require more deep-going, democratic solutions.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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