Body-scanners in railway stations in the UK?

Victoria Cohen writing in her column in The Observer, UK, on Sunday mentioned that she had read of body-scanners being used at Bath railway station. She used this as the starting point for a standard kind of warning on increasing surveillance.

Now, normally, I would thoroughly approve, and such diffusion of technologies of surveillance would fit with the trajectories we outlined in the Report on the Surveillance Society a few years back. However, it didn’t take a lot of digging (and I am probably not the only person who has discovered this) to find that she was basing her column on a misinterpretation of what had gone on in Bath. According to an Avon and Somerset Constabulary press release, what was happening was a temporary exercise conducted jointly with the British Transport Police, using not a body-scanner but a metal detector (or ‘knife arch’ as they are sometimes termed) and sniffer dogs. This was apparently part of a policy to raise awareness of nightlife safety.

There are of course still many issues with the routine use of both sniffer dogs and metal detectors, but we need to be very careful to get the facts right when we are making comments about the spread of surveillance. Get things wrong, and the whole issue can get tarnished as alarmist.

Body-scanners are not being used in UK railway stations. Not yet, anyway…

Who gets Freedom of Information?

UK transparency campaigner, Heather Brooke, writes a comment piece on The Guardian website today on why she believes that UK university cancer researchers should have to give up information to transnational tobacco giant, Philip Morris. The basis for the argument is that Freedom of Information law should apply regardless of who the applicant is.

I generally admire Heather’s single-minded work on FoI, but single-mindedness is not always a virtue, and can sometimes lead to overly extreme conclusions which lack a broader understanding of the political economics involved. As in this case. As a researcher and analyst rather than a campaigner, I can see that there are three important counter-arguments to her piece:

1. Corporations are not people. There is a serious and ongoing battle here. Although legal incorporation means companies are often considered as legal people, we should not start to think of them as having ‘rights’ like individuals, not should rights that come from citizenship or by being an individual voter apply to them. Recently, the US supreme court rejected the argument of a large telecoms company that it had privacy rights. The worrying thing is that several lower courts had accepted that it could have such rights. Rather than providing corporations with more equivalences to human rights, we need to be holding corporations to account.  This brings me to…

2. The really important issue with large private companies and FoI is why those large private companies are not subject to the same kind of transparency. Corporate confidentiality makes no sense even in the context of liberal economic theory, however it makes even less sense if we think about FoI as a method of accountability. Corporations are unable to be held accountable via electoral processes and the markets are too diffuse and diverse (and spread across too many different countries) to work as a mechanism of accountability, so we need law that rebalances the power imbalances between corporations on the one had, and people, individually and collectively, on the other – through transparency. That is, after all, what is its main point when it comes to state transparency and FoI; it’s not really about ‘value for the tax payer’, it’s about power.

3. On that note, FoI is being increasingly used against academics and activists in particular as a form of intimidation by corporate interests. This is not to say that academics and activists should not be accountable, but it is not the case that all parties here of on a level playing field, and further, mechanisms of accountability are themselves not simply neutral or unequivocally always a good thing because of what they are supposed to do. Law has to embed intention, and be interpretable by the courts, in a way that clearly differentiates between legitimate use (for people holding organisations to account), poor excuses (as in the state claiming expense or lack of time as reasons for not releasing information), and blatant misuse of the law for purposes for which it was not intended. If it does not, it can simply become another method the intensification of organisational power against the interests of people.

Guess who likes the UK’s proposals to control the Internet?

In the wake of the riots, several British Conservative MPs, and indeed PM David Cameron himself, have suggested a harsher regime of state control of both messenger services and social networks. Their suggestions have attracted widespread derision from almost everybody who either knows something about the Internet and communications more broadly, or who places any value on freedom of speech, assembly and communication and regards these things as foundational to any democratic society.

However, the a yet vague proposals have gained support from one quarter: China. The Chinese state-controlled media have suggested that the Conservative Party’s undemocratic suggestions prove that the Chinese state was right all along about controlling the Internet and that now these events are causing liberal democracies to support the Chinese model of highly regulated provision (via Boing Boing).

This is pretty much what I have been suggesting is happening for the last 2 or 3 years – see here, here, here and here. It is just that now, the pretense of democratic communication is being dropped by western governments. And just in case David Cameron doesn’t get it – and he really does not appear to right now, no, it is not a good thing that the Chinese government likes your ideas: it makes you look undemocratic and authoritarian.

David Cameron doesn’t get it

David Cameron’s speech in the House of Commons today and associated comments, show that he has a really superficial grasp of what has been going on in British cities, mostly whilst he was on holiday and unwilling to return to demonstrate any kind of leadership.

First of all, he’s done the usual knee-jerk authoritarian and technophobic thing of blaming Blackberry and other messaging services. He has indicated that “Ministers would work with the police and MI5 to assess whether it would be right to stop people communicating via social network sites ‘when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality’, and had “asked the police if they needed new powers in this area”. When the Egyptian government cut off access to social networking sites recently, western governments were quick to condemn this as evidence that this regime was exactly the kind of authoritarian government that should be brought down. However, in Britain, apparently not. And closing down communications systems just because some people are using them to send messages you don’t like is several steps beyond things like wiretapping. It is a massive and idiotic overreaction. Let’s hope the ‘assessment’ is, in the end, more considered…

Another face-palming moment was provided by the appeal to US experts in gang culture. Now, no-one is going to deny that there were gangs involved in this, nor that gang culture is an issue in British cities. But, first of all, the US is no place to look if you want lessons on controlling gangs, or more importantly, how to create a society in which gangs seem like a less attractive option in the first place. And secondly, there is an assumption that UK gang culture is just like US gang culture, just because they are both gang cultures. Why not look instead to other European countries without significant gang problems and ask what it is about those societies that work? Unfortunately that is the kind of question that would lead to fundamental challenges to UK socio-economic policy, and that’s exactly why the questions and responses will remain superficial.

These kinds of things will annoy the libertarian right and the left respectively, however at the same time, the UK Prime Minister is taking some strange stances that threaten to alienate his own centre-right supporters, in particular in refusing to halt cuts to policing budgets already proposed as part of his austerity measures (never mind massive cuts to social services to inner city youth, which will also be pushed ahead regardless).

It’s hard to see who remains that he is appealing to here…