UK ID Card Program scrapped after election (and more)

As both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats in the UK had the scrapping of the National Identity Card card scheme as part of their manifesto, the unpopular program has been suspended immediately by the new coalition government, pending further announcements.

The full statement reads as follows:

“Both Parties that now form the new Government stated in their manifestos that they will cancel Identity Cards and the National Identity Register. We will announce in due course how this will be achieved. Applications can continue to be made for ID cards but we would advise anyone thinking of applying to wait for further announcements.

Until Parliament agrees otherwise, identity cards remain valid and as such can still be used as an identity document and for travel within Europe. We will update you with further information as soon as we have it.”

But although the cards will almost certainly go, despite the statement it is unclear yet what will be the fate of the National Identity Register (NIR), the new central database at the heart of the scheme. Neither party, and the Tories especially, said anything specific in their manifestos about scrapping the database, so we will see what happens here – although the statement issued seems categorical about this too. Although the end of the card scheme reduces opportunities for the ‘papers, please’ style abuse of minorities, it is the database that is of biggest concern to those interested in surveillance and social sorting. I have long favoured a secure central government Information Clearinghouse, which whilst transferring necessary information as needed and consented to between different parts of government, would not in itself hold any data. I suspect however, that some fudge will emerge!

In the meantime, the price of the coalition also was reported to include new legislation regulating video surveillance (CCTV) cameras (only about 20 years too late, but that’s the speed of British politics for you), and the review of many of the new powers in the (Anti-)Terrorism and Civil Contingencies Acts (and perhaps the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act too – though it hasn’t yet been mentioned specifically). It is very rare that legislation is repealed or rolled back but we may yet see an increase in civil liberties under the new coalition. The one big worry in this are though is the Conservative opposition to the Human Rights Act – however with their Liberal Democrat partners being committed to the HRA, I can’t see any moves to repeal the act in this Parliament.

I am cautiously optimistic…

UK Parliamentary Committee rejects Government DNA proposals

The House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee has rejected a key part of the UK government’s new plans for the National DNA Database (NDNAD). The plans came in response to the ruling by the European Court that the NDNAD was being operated contrary to human rights law by keeping the profiles of innocent people indefinitely. The database has been filled largely through the provisions of a very vague and wide-ranging provision that allowed the police to take DNA from anyone arrested for an indictable offence, and to keep it even if they were never even charged (let alone charged and not convicted). The result had been that long-standing prejudices within the police had meant a bias in the databases against young black men, and a rapidly expanding set of profiles of children and the entirely innocent.The NDNAD had also been attacked by the HUman Genetics Commission (the government’s own watchdog) which recommended multiple reforms.

One of the main parts of the government’s response to the European Court ruling was that DNA should be retained for 6 years – the committee has recommended that this be halved to 3 years (we are still talking about the DNA of innocent people here…), and that there should be some proper national system for deciding who gets deleted entirely (at the moment it is at the discretion of Chief Constables of local police forces!). Of course all of these leaves the wider question of fairness and rights undebated. There are only two properly just ways to run a database of this sort. One would be to include only the DNA of those convicted of a crime or suspected in an ongoing investigation. The other would be to include everyone (as the UAE has decided to do). At the moment, the NDNAD is, like most things in Britain, an unaccountable mess of law, customary practice and happenstance that pleases no-one and is also remarkably ineffective for the money and effort put into it. This will only improve slightly even if the select committee’s recommendations are accepted.

What now for the UK’s anti-terrorism laws?

On the 12th of January, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in the case of Gillan and Quinton v. the United Kingdom, that UK police powers to randomly stop and search people under Sections 44-47 of The Terrorism Act (2000) were unlawful. This is the third recent ruling by the ECHR against the current direction of the UK’s security policies (after the ruling in S. and Marper v. the UK, against the police retaining DNA profiles and fingerprints from people not convicted of any offence). It also follows the furore over the London Metropolitan Police’s interpretation of Sections 43, 44 and 58s of The Terrorism Act in relation to public photography.* The case was brought by two people, Pennie Quinton a journalist who was on her way to cover a demonstration against an arms fair in London in September 2003,, and Kevin Gillan, who was cycling past.

Section 44 allows the police to stop and search anyone on the basis of a ‘reasonable suspicion’ that they may be in posssession of information or items that may be useful in committing an act of terrorism. The case in the ECHR was on several principles, most of which were rejected, but most importantly the Court found that arbitrary stop and search dis violate Article 8 of the European Convention, on the right to privacy. This was because “the use of the coercive powers conferred by the legislation to require an individual to submit to a detailed search of his person, his clothing and his personal belongings amounts to a clear interference with the right to respect for private life”.

Furthermore the UK government once again argued, as it did equally unsuccessfully in the case of Peck v. UK back in 2003, that Article 8 did not apply as there was no right privacy in public places. This argument, the Court not only rejected but actually argued that the publicness of the stop and search made the violation of privacy worse:

“Although the search is undertaken in a public place, this does not mean that Article 8 is inapplicable. Indeed, in the Court’s view, the public nature of the search may, in certain cases, compound the seriousness of the interference because of an element of humiliation and embarrassment. Items such as bags, wallets, notebooks and diaries may, moreover, contain personal information which the owner may feel uncomfortable about having exposed to the view of his companions or the wider public.”

This was a well-thought out ruling which made the arguments pretty clear. However the response of the UK government, as in the DNA case, leaves a lot to be desired. In fact, it has basically said, “make me”! The government intends to ignore the ruling in everyday practice, as it did with Peck, and will continue to allow police to carry out such searches whilst it appeals the case. This also means that there will be no disciplinary action against any officer who follows this policy, despite its now being unlawful.

*This of course is by no means over either, and there will be a mass photography action, “I’m a Photographer Not a Terrorist!”, on January 23rd at 12 Noon, Trafalgar Square in London.

Olympic surveillance legacies

David Loukidelis, the Information and Privacy Commissioner of British Columbia, speaking today at The Surveillance Games workshop, has made it quite clear that his office does not want the Winter Games to leave a legacy of securitization in the city or indeed, fear (as the Assistant Federal Privacy Commissioner, Chantal Bernier, put it), in the consciousness of its residents. In particular he argued that the 600 (yes, 600) cameras that are being installed at the Olympic venues and beyond should not be allowed to remain after the games. I hope that his office is able to deliver on this view, but I doubt that it will. As Kevin Haggerty and Phil Boyle have noted, security architecture is now an actual deliverable of the Olympics, and as many other researchers have shown, such architecture, including in particular CCTV but also adjusted local or national laws on the thematic and spatial limits of protest and freedom of expression (which, as Michael Vonn of the BCCLA and Chris Shaw, a leading anti-games activist, are describing at this very moment in the conference, are themselves often illegal and unconstitutional) tends not only to persist but to act as a kind of Trojan Horse for an expanded surveillance. And as Vonn’s group has also shown – the city is building a permanent CCTV control centre as part of the security architecture for the Games, and you don’t do that for cameras that are going to be removed.

UK state spy program targets innocent

The headline may not come as any surprise but a damning report has been released on a key strand of the British government’s counterterrrorism strategy, Preventing Violent Extremism (or just ‘Prevent’). £140m (around $200m US) has been allocated to this program but much of it seems to have been devoted not to combatting nascent Islamic extremism (which is the stated aim) but MI5 simply collecting masses of information on entirely innocent British Muslims – information that will be kept until they are 100 years old! Part of this is because of the tenuous nature of the strategy in the first place: how would one define or identify those who are not terrorists but might become so? Will it be, as in cases reported by The Guardian, the student who attends a lecture on the conditions in Gaza or Muslim men with mental health problems? And much of this depends on teachers and lecturers reporting students. Therefore the program would seem inevitably to encourage suspicion and distrust, as Arun Kundnani writes and as the general tone of left and civil liberties critique has reinforced. But opposition has come from all sides: Pauline Neville-Jones, the Conservative shadow security minister, but also former chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee and political director of the Foreign Office, has also condemned the whole approach of New Labour, which she argues is rooted in the identification of discrete ‘communities’ who share similar characteristics. This can of course be the basis of a form of multiculturalism, but at times of increased security and suspicion it seems all to easy for it to morph into what is effectively racial profiling…