Privacy International has produced a much-needed survey of the state of the surveillance industry, following its other excellent report on the use of development aid to push surveillance technologies on developing countries. The British government’s response, voiced by the Chair of the Parliamentary Committee on Arms Export Controls, Sir John Stanley, has been a typically limp one, largely concerned with the possibility of such systems being sold to ‘authoritarian regimes’ yet blustered and talked of ‘grey areas’ when it came to Britain’s responsibility for this trade.
But this is all way too little too late. I warned of the danger of the increased technological capabilities and decreasing costs of ‘surveillance-in-a-box’ systems as far back as 2008 (see my post here which refers to that). Instead of taking horizon-scanning and pre-emptive action to limit this, Britain, the USA and many other states have encouraged this trade with state aid – as they have with military and security industries more broadly – and, not least, encouraged the use of surveillance on a global scale themselves. Their own extensive breaches of human rights through programs like PRISM and TEMPEST give them no real moral high ground to talk about what authoritarian regimes might do, when they are already pursuing the same actions.
In another chapter in the current struggle over the means of visual representation, the UK Court of Appeal has made an important ruling that could affect the future of police surveillance tactics. In a case brought by anti-arms trade protestor, Andrew Wood (no relation!), the judges ruled that the Metropolitan Police should destroy photographs taken of Mr Wood at the AGM of giant dataveillance conglomerate, Reed Elsevier ( the BBC calls them a ‘publisher’ but that’s a rather archaic and inaccurate term for what Reed Elsevier does, which is to collect, analyse, organise and trade in personal and business data of all kinds). Reed Elsevier had been involved with running arms trade exhibitions through a subsidiary at the time.
The ruling argued that the police should not take and retain pictures of people who were not suspected of any current wrongdoing, but whom the police considered might do so in the future. According to the BBC, the Met had argued that its actions “were reasonable in helping officers to detect crimes that may have occurred in the past or may do so in the future.” But that is exactly the kind of blanket risk-management-based way of thinking that allows almost any preemptive or precautionary mass surveillance to be justified, and it is quite right that the Court should have ruled that it should be controlled. It is about time that a ruling like this was made.
The one cautionary note here is that the Met will be appealing this to the House of Lords, and no doubt beyond if that fails, so watch this space…