Oxford taxi cabs will record your every word…

Just when you thought that having just about your every move recorded in the UK was bad enough, Oxford City Council, which runs the city I once called home, has decided that all taxi cabs in the city will record both sound and vision, and these records will be kept for up to 28 days, just in case.

People often ask me ‘where do you draw the line?’. Well, you absolutely draw the line at recording private conversations without a specific justification. Generalized audio surveillance is not just a step over the line, it leaps over the line, lands far beyond it and keeps running.

This is just wrong. No qualification.

It seems that despite having got rid of one government with authoritarian surveillance tendencies, the same impulses are alive and well in local government in Britain. Perhaps the councillors who voted for this would first like to have audio surveillance in their offices, cars and houses, you know: just in case…

The Total Surveillance Society?

Advanced visual surveillance has become prevalent in most developed nations but, being restricted by inconvenient things like democracy and accountability (even if they are not as strong as some would like) and police and local authority funding, such surveillance remains patchy even where it is widespread.

The Chinese state, however, suffers from none of these inconvenient restrictions. Free from democracy, accountability, and with a buoyant economy still largely connected to the Communist Party, it is able to put in place surveillance systems beyond the wildest dreams of the most paranoid western administrators. The target of the new wave of surveillance is internal political unrest, particularly in separatist Tibetan Buddhist and Muslim areas of the massive nation.

Associated Press is reporting official internal announcements about how Urumqi, capital of the Uighur Muslim area of Xinjiang, which saw extensive anti-government protests last year, will be blanketed by surveillance systems. According to the report:

  • 40,000 high-definition surveillance cameras with riot-proof protective shells have already been installed in the region, with 17,000 in Urumqi itself
  • 3,400 buses, 4,400 streets, 270 schools and 100 shopping malls are already covered
  • the aim is for surveillance to be “seamless”, with no blind spots in sensitive areas of the city (and this includes in particular, religious sites)
  • 5,000 new police officers have been recruited

This is part of a wider ‘Safe City’ strategy – in this context, even more of a euphemistic description that the same words would be in the west – that will see 10 million cameras being installed across the country. Ths numbers keep growing all the time: the last time that I reported on this, the estimate was less than 3 million ! IMS Consultants last year estimated that the Chinese video surveillance market was $1.4 billion in 2009, and that this will grow to over $3.5 billion by 2014. China is now the single largest market for video surveillance in the world.

UK Control Orders to be replaced by Surveillance Orders

There has been a lot of speculation in the last couple of weeks about the fate of the ‘Control Orders’ that have been placed on various people (largely British Muslims) who are strongly suspected by the authorities of involvement with terrorism, but who have not committed any crime that would likely lead to a successful prosecution. These orders tend to amount to forms of curfewing or house arrest without trial, and banning them from using all forms of telecommunications, and needless to say, have been immensely controversial with civil liberties groups arguing that they subvert the rule of law, and that if there is evidence of terrorist activity people should be investigated and charged with such offenses. This has also been a test case for the willingness of the Conservative- LibDem coalition to take onboard key Liberal Democrat priorities and to go further in rolling back the creeping authoritarianism that characterised the final years of the New Labour regime.

So what will replace them? Speculation had centred around the replacement of the order with a system that allowed suspects to move around relatively freely but placed them under intensified ongoing surveillance. Now the BBC is claiming that it has details of what are likely to be called ‘Surveillance Orders’. These, they say, will give the security services the power to:

  • Ban suspects from travelling to locations such as open parks and thick walled buildings where surveillance is hard;
  • Allow suspects to use mobile phones and the internet but only if the numbers and details are given to the security services;
  • Ban suspects travelling abroad; and
  • Ban suspects meeting certain named individuals, but limited to people who are themselves under surveillance or suspected of involvement in terrorism.

Some of this is hardly new: those suspected of involvedment in football hooliganism in the UK have been subject to travel bans since the 1980s, and it seems to be from this that precendent is taken for at least this part of the new place. It is also almost funny that certain locales are seemingly specified as being difficult for surveillance – and I know this won’t be in the actual Bill – but, surely it is actually quite useful for real terrorists to know this? 😉

But this is all very interesting not least because it uses ‘surveillance’ as a supposed replacement for ‘control’, or as something synonymous with increased freedom. That may be so in physical terms, but the constant monitoring suggested under these new orders creates something very far from freedom. However in many ways it constitutes simply an intensified version of the kind of low-level constant monitoring or mass surveillance that is characteristic of contemporary surveillance societies. It is not so much that there are the ‘unwatched’ and the ‘watched’ rather there is a spectrum of surveillance between the lightly and heavily monitored. The new ‘Surveillance Orders’ would merely seem to push the dial for an individual into the category of heavy monitoring.

UK Media on the New ICO Surveillance Report

There has been some good coverage (and some less good) coverage of the new ICO surveillance update report, to which we (founder-members of the Surveillance Studies Network) contributed the background research.

There are national press stories in The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, in regional papers like The Yorkshire Post, and in trade publications like Computer Weekly, The Register, and Public Service.

Although some of the reports get things wrong, and The Daily Mail’s in particular is a masterpiece of selective quotation and context-removal, the response has generally got the main points that we intended to get across. These include the points that the change of government in Britain with its rhetoric of rolling back surveillance doesn’t necessarily affect a great deal of what the state does beyond those headline measures like scrapping ID cards and the National Identity Register; and, even more importantly, both transnational data sharing between states and surveillance by the private sector are intensifying and spreading regardless. We do highlight some particular surveillance technologies and practices but these are largely emblematic in this report – it was not a large survey like the 2006 orignal – so although we talk about drone cameras, Google Latitude and Facebook Places, ubiquitous computing, e-borders and new workplace monitoring practices, we are not trying to say that these are the only games in town.

America’s Surveillance State

I’ve posted several times over the last few years on how the USA is rapidly overtaking Britain as the leading democratic ‘surveillance society’. It seems like some commentators in the USA now agree – Glenn Greenwald writes on the Salon magazine site, about his essay published by the libertarian Cato Institute, and the responses it has received from different parts of the US political spectrum. It’s all worth a read, although for British activists and academics in this area in particular, it will sound like what Yogi Berra famously described as ‘deja-vu all over again’… and it’s hardly new even in the States (see the work done by ACLU, Wired’s Danger Room, experts and academics like Bill Staples, Bruce Schneier and Torin Monahan, and popular books by Christian Parenti and Robert O’Harrow, for just a couple of examples).