Further details on the new UK government’s Civil Liberties agenda

The UK full coalition agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrat parties has just been published. It includes a section on civil liberties which is much more than we could have hoped for and which makes no mention of rolling back the Human Rights Act or the more ludicrous fringe Conservative demands… In full it is as follows:

“The parties agree to implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour government and roll back state intrusion.

This will include:

• A freedom or great repeal bill;

• The scrapping of the ID card scheme, the national identity register, the next generation of biometric passports and the Contact Point database;

• Outlawing the fingerprinting of children at school without parental permission;

• The extension of the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater transparency;

• Adopting the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database;

• The protection of historic freedoms through the defence of trial by jury;

• The restoration of rights to non-violent protest;

• The review of libel laws to protect freedom of speech;

• Safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation;

• Further regulation of CCTV;

• Ending of storage of internet and email records without good reason;

• A new mechanism to prevent the proliferation of unnecessary new criminal offences.”

All of these points are excellent. They lack detail of course, and the devil is always in the detail, and I would have liked to have seen a little more on what would be included in the ‘great repeal’ given that later it only talks about ‘safeguards’ against the abuse of anti-terrorism laws, but really this is as good as anyone could have hoped for, even, though they may not admit it, many of the more socially-liberal Labour Party supporters. The reform of libel laws and commitment to transparency is equally as welcome as the rolling back or regulation of surveillance, and this seems to extend into other parts of the agreement for the reform of government and elections. I hope the eventual full programme will also include some rationalisation of the crazy landscape of multiple ‘commissions’ to regulate different aspects of state-citizen information relations, in favour of an expanded and more powerful Information Commissioner’s Office, but we will see. However, this is a great start (and I never, ever, thought I would be saying that about a Conservative government…).

Big Brother isn’t listening (at least in Maryland)…

Hot on the heals of my earlier post on the subject, I have just received the news that following the publication of the report in The Baltimore Sun, the Maryland Transit Authority have pulled the proposal to use audio surveillance on their buses.

However, an interesting thing to note in this supplementary report by transport correspondent, Michael Dresser, on the paper’s blog, is that the proposal apparently came about because CCTV cameras these days come with sound-recording built in, and that other transit authorities in Cleveland, Denver and Chicago use it. The MTA administrator responsible for seeking the legal opinion on audio surveillance is quoted as saying “It’s something that’s becoming the standard of the industry.”

So, if I am reading this right here, important policy decisions that have major implications for privacy are being treated simply as technical issues because the technologies that are being purchased have the capabilities. It’s only in this case because the MTA sought a legal opinion that we know at all, let alone that anyone objected. So how many other transit, police or urban authorities or commercial venues in how many places are now regularly using the audio capabilities of cameras without ever having considered that this might be a problem? And what other built-in technical capabilities will simply be used in future simply because they are available? What about the Terahertz Wave scanning that I covered earlier on?

Tech regs, not ethics, close London CCTV

Hundreds of CCTV cameras in London will have to be shut down, but this has nothing to do with concerns over privacy, liberty or the surveillance society, it is entirely due to technical regulations.

The cameras, which are mobile road cameras owned by Westminster City Council, used for multiple tasks including anti-crime activities and protest-monitoring, but they are supposed to be for traffic regulation and as such must conform to technical standards set by the Department for Transport (DfT) -in this case, a 720 x 576 pixel picture size (analogue broadcast standard). Westminster’s are 704 x 576!

This might all seem rather petty were it not for two rather important aspects. First of all the case reminds us how surveillance introduced specifically for one area (traffic management) can creep into other areas for which they were never intended or authorized. This can also work in many directions: some of London’s congestion charge cameras were originally installed as anti-terrorism cameras after the IRA attacks of the early 90s.

Secondly, however it also shows, counter-intuitively, how weak is the regulation of CCTV in the UK. The fact is that the cameras have been stopped because of a technical infringement, and indeed there is in general an extensive and growing list of technical regulations and recommendations for CCTV issued by central Government bureaucracy, yet CCTV remains massively under-regulated when it comes to conformity with human rights and civil liberties, let alone for any consideration of the wider and longer-term social impacts of pervasive video surveillance. The closure of this system highlights the powerlessness of the British people in the face of increasingly authoritarian government, not their strength…

(Thanks to Aaron Martin for sending me this one)

How many cameras are there in Britain? (4)

Despite the fact that it really doesn’t ‘work’, the growth of CCTV is almost out of control in Britain, and it is probably only the recession that is holding this growth back at all…

Here is another episode in the ongoing saga that was sparked off by my discussion with David Aaronovitch about supposedly misleading figures used in our Report on the Surveillance Society, leading to his rather weak comment piece in The Times, my pre-emptive response here, and Paul Lewis’ similar piece in The Guardian.

Aaronovitch’s own newspaper, The Times, has now published a story by one of its reporters, Kaya Burgess, in which she counted the cameras on her commute into work, and found there were a total of 281 cameras on her 3.1 mile route, or one camera every 18 metres on average. 108 of these were state-placed and the rest were installed by private operators (shops,homes etc.). As the article points out, and this is something I have been arguing for years, the growth of private cameras is remarkable and of course, almost completely unregulated.

The figure of 281 is remarkably similar to Clive Norris’ little fictional tale of ‘Thomas Kearns’ of 1999 which sparked the ‘we are watched by 300 cameras a day’ stories in the press, and which was the subject of Aaronovitch’s piece. Perhaps we should feel smug, but that still isn’t the point. There never was an ‘accurate’ figure to be correct about. It was a possibility. Now it seems that the possibility has been bypassed by some distance, at least for London. Because remember, Kaya’s journey was merely the journey into work. It was not even a small portion of the day. It did not count cameras at work, or those she might encounter during her working day, nor those her image might be captured by if she went out for a post-work meal and drinks… her 281 might well end up being double that by the end of the day, and she was not doing any of the more ‘unrealistic’ things that Norris’ ‘busy Londoner’ was.

Of course, this density of cameras is by no means uniform across London or across the country, nor is there one central ‘Big Brother’ behind the cameras, no one guard in the tower. We live not in the Panopticon of Jeremy Bentham, made notorious by Michel Foucault’s analysis, but in what contemporary French theorist, Bruno Latour, called, an ‘oligopticon’. In some places we are watched (and even known) intensely and in others hardly at all, and we move through these different zones of varying intensities of surveillance in our days and our lives.

Does that make the huge number and high density of cameras in some places ethically more acceptable? Hardly. Despite the fact that it really doesn’t ‘work’, the growth of CCTV is almost out of control in Britain, and it is probably only the recession that is holding this growth back at all. The Times report also notes that the Local Authority cameras appeared to be placed in clear violation of the existing voluntary CCTV Code of Practice which states that CCTV should be installed in areas of high crime, not just at regular intervals everywhere. Senior police officers I have talked to agree with this. They don’t see the need for cameras on every corner; they want to target crime hot spots effectively and efficiently. And of course, the private cameras aren’t really regulated much, and those on private homes not at all. The important thing, is to have stronger, clearer regulation of CCTV as the House of Lords Constitution Committee recently demanded. This new regulation should control and perhaps even reverse the growth in the number of cameras by specifying much more clearly the circumstances and contexts under which CCTV is appropriate and how it is to be discussed and approved, so that it becomes a possibility to be debated not the normality to be expected.

(thanks to Charles Raab for bringing this piece to my attention and for being fair about The Times!)

Convention on Modern Liberty

The largest ever British meeting of people against the surveillance society took place in London yesterday. The Convention on Modern Liberty site has (unedited) transcripts of some of the speeches an debates including author, Phillip Pullman’s excellent keynote. The Guardian/Observer website also has a strongly supportive report and there is an editorial in the The Observer, which argues that “whether by complacency, arrogance or cynical design, the government has erected an edifice of legal constraint to liberty that would suit the methods and aims of a despot.”

It was a shame that I couldn’t be there but I like to think I played some small part in the process that has led here, and will hopefully this campaign will continue to go on to forcing a retreat by the state from its illiberal course. This meeting is merely the beginning of the convention…