New Report on Social Control

There is an interesting new report out from the Geneva-based organisation, the International Council on Human Rights Policy (ICHRP)*, called Modes and Patterns of Social Control. It has a lot of overlap in content and analysis with the book I am writing at the moment, which is great in that it means I am not alone in what I am thinking. The authors include a fellow surveillance CRC, Stephane Leman-Langlois, and Clifford Shearing, one of the pioneering figures in our understanding of surveillance today.

*disclaimer: I am an advisor on another ICHRP project on Surveillance and Privacy that has just started.

Article 12: Waking Up in a Surveillance Society

I’m in a film! Article 12: Waking Up in a Surveillance Society is a really essential new documentary made by Junco Films, now doing the rounds of international film festivals. According to the Leeds Film Festival, where it will be shown next

“Article 12 presents an urgent and incisive deconstruction of the current state of privacy, the rights and desires of individuals and governments, and the increasing use of surveillance. The film adopts the twelfth article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to chart privacy issues worldwide, arguing that without this right no other human right can truly be exercised. It assembles leading academics and cultural analysts including Noam Chomsky, AC Grayling and Amy Goodman to highlight the devastating potency of surveillance, the dangers of complicity, and the growing movement fighting for this crucial right.”
Showings will be on Fri 12th Nov, 2010 at 20:15 in the Howard Assembly Room and on Tue 16th Nov, 2010 at 17:00 in Leeds Town Hall 2. The Tuesday showing will feature a discussion involving some of the contributors including AC Grayling (not me, although I was asked – it’s a bit too far to go!).
Future showings will include the Geneva International Human Rights Film Festival in March 2011 and hopefully Hotdocs in Toronto. If anyone else is interested in showing this film as part of an event, I’d be happy to contact the makers…

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.

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)