There has been a lot of speculation in the last couple of weeks about the fate of the ‘Control Orders’ that have been placed on various people (largely British Muslims) who are strongly suspected by the authorities of involvement with terrorism, but who have not committed any crime that would likely lead to a successful prosecution. These orders tend to amount to forms of curfewing or house arrest without trial, and banning them from using all forms of telecommunications, and needless to say, have been immensely controversial with civil liberties groups arguing that they subvert the rule of law, and that if there is evidence of terrorist activity people should be investigated and charged with such offenses. This has also been a test case for the willingness of the Conservative- LibDem coalition to take onboard key Liberal Democrat priorities and to go further in rolling back the creeping authoritarianism that characterised the final years of the New Labour regime.
So what will replace them? Speculation had centred around the replacement of the order with a system that allowed suspects to move around relatively freely but placed them under intensified ongoing surveillance. Now the BBC is claiming that it has details of what are likely to be called ‘Surveillance Orders’. These, they say, will give the security services the power to:
- Ban suspects from travelling to locations such as open parks and thick walled buildings where surveillance is hard;
- Allow suspects to use mobile phones and the internet but only if the numbers and details are given to the security services;
- Ban suspects travelling abroad; and
- Ban suspects meeting certain named individuals, but limited to people who are themselves under surveillance or suspected of involvement in terrorism.
Some of this is hardly new: those suspected of involvedment in football hooliganism in the UK have been subject to travel bans since the 1980s, and it seems to be from this that precendent is taken for at least this part of the new place. It is also almost funny that certain locales are seemingly specified as being difficult for surveillance – and I know this won’t be in the actual Bill – but, surely it is actually quite useful for real terrorists to know this? 😉
But this is all very interesting not least because it uses ‘surveillance’ as a supposed replacement for ‘control’, or as something synonymous with increased freedom. That may be so in physical terms, but the constant monitoring suggested under these new orders creates something very far from freedom. However in many ways it constitutes simply an intensified version of the kind of low-level constant monitoring or mass surveillance that is characteristic of contemporary surveillance societies. It is not so much that there are the ‘unwatched’ and the ‘watched’ rather there is a spectrum of surveillance between the lightly and heavily monitored. The new ‘Surveillance Orders’ would merely seem to push the dial for an individual into the category of heavy monitoring.