Guess who likes the UK’s proposals to control the Internet?

In the wake of the riots, several British Conservative MPs, and indeed PM David Cameron himself, have suggested a harsher regime of state control of both messenger services and social networks. Their suggestions have attracted widespread derision from almost everybody who either knows something about the Internet and communications more broadly, or who places any value on freedom of speech, assembly and communication and regards these things as foundational to any democratic society.

However, the a yet vague proposals have gained support from one quarter: China. The Chinese state-controlled media have suggested that the Conservative Party’s undemocratic suggestions prove that the Chinese state was right all along about controlling the Internet and that now these events are causing liberal democracies to support the Chinese model of highly regulated provision (via Boing Boing).

This is pretty much what I have been suggesting is happening for the last 2 or 3 years – see here, here, here and here. It is just that now, the pretense of democratic communication is being dropped by western governments. And just in case David Cameron doesn’t get it – and he really does not appear to right now, no, it is not a good thing that the Chinese government likes your ideas: it makes you look undemocratic and authoritarian.

David Cameron doesn’t get it

David Cameron’s speech in the House of Commons today and associated comments, show that he has a really superficial grasp of what has been going on in British cities, mostly whilst he was on holiday and unwilling to return to demonstrate any kind of leadership.

First of all, he’s done the usual knee-jerk authoritarian and technophobic thing of blaming Blackberry and other messaging services. He has indicated that “Ministers would work with the police and MI5 to assess whether it would be right to stop people communicating via social network sites ‘when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality’, and had “asked the police if they needed new powers in this area”. When the Egyptian government cut off access to social networking sites recently, western governments were quick to condemn this as evidence that this regime was exactly the kind of authoritarian government that should be brought down. However, in Britain, apparently not. And closing down communications systems just because some people are using them to send messages you don’t like is several steps beyond things like wiretapping. It is a massive and idiotic overreaction. Let’s hope the ‘assessment’ is, in the end, more considered…

Another face-palming moment was provided by the appeal to US experts in gang culture. Now, no-one is going to deny that there were gangs involved in this, nor that gang culture is an issue in British cities. But, first of all, the US is no place to look if you want lessons on controlling gangs, or more importantly, how to create a society in which gangs seem like a less attractive option in the first place. And secondly, there is an assumption that UK gang culture is just like US gang culture, just because they are both gang cultures. Why not look instead to other European countries without significant gang problems and ask what it is about those societies that work? Unfortunately that is the kind of question that would lead to fundamental challenges to UK socio-economic policy, and that’s exactly why the questions and responses will remain superficial.

These kinds of things will annoy the libertarian right and the left respectively, however at the same time, the UK Prime Minister is taking some strange stances that threaten to alienate his own centre-right supporters, in particular in refusing to halt cuts to policing budgets already proposed as part of his austerity measures (never mind massive cuts to social services to inner city youth, which will also be pushed ahead regardless).

It’s hard to see who remains that he is appealing to here…

UK consultation on CCTV: a weak brew?

The UK government has released a consultation document on a ‘Code of practice relating to surveillance cameras’ (CCTV). The closing date for comments in May 25th.

I will go through the document in more detail but there are several initial things to note here:

1. I am interested first of all in the fact that the camera systems are refered to as ‘surveillance cameras’ rather than ‘security cameras’ or ‘safety cameras’ as in many situations I have encountered around the world.

2. This is merely a step toward a state code of practice. The government had promised to ‘regulate’ CCTV, and what many people might have legitimately expected from such a promise was legislation, in other word a statutory footing for surveillance cameras and legal controls. A code of practice is very much at the weak and volunteeristic end of ‘regulation’ if it is regulation at all. The proposed Code itself is really quite weak and presaged on “gradually raising standards to a common level.” with nothing that is mandatory.

3. The document proposes another ‘Commissioner’ to govern surveillance cameras, a ‘Surveillance Camera Commissioner’. This government, despite its avowed attempt to reverse the proliferation of Quangos, seems to want to create another one. One would think that this would naturally fall under the remit of the Information Commissioner, but it appears that the Tory attacks on the ICO (which have been going on in newspapers like The Times for some years and have now spread to other libertarian groups) have been having some effect. Does Britain need another Commissioner in the area of information, surveillance and privacy? I don’t think so. I think we need to clarify the roles of existing Commissioners, and reduce their number – provide adequate budgets and better guidance and division of labour. I suggested a few weeks ago that splitting the ICO into a Surveillance and Privacy Commissioner (which would incorporate the data protection function and absorb all the existing micro-commissions like Surveillance, Interception of Telecommunications and now this new proposed Surveillance Camera Commissioner) and a separate Freedom of Information Commissioner, would be the best solution.

4. The consultation document acknowledges that camera surveillance has increased too rapidly in Britain and has eroded privacy and been overly intrusive. That’s a start. However it also hedges this quite strongly by saying that the government does not intend to limit law enforcement’s abilities. I am not sure the two things are compatible – but I will have to examine the proposals in more detail.

5. The document acknowledges that “CCTV does not always provide the benefits expected of it” but explains this as largely down to technical and operation reasons rather than anything more fundamentally problematic. This is not necessarily justified by evidence or particularly insightful.

6. The document acknowledges that Automatic Number Plate (Licence Plate) Recogntion (ANPR / ALPR) is largely unregulated too and that it connects to all kinds of databases, yet proposes little more than auditable data trails.

7. The document mentions both flying drone cameras / Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and helmet-mounted cameras, but assumes mistakenly that these are ‘niche and novel’. If this can still be said to be true, it will not be for much longer, and the document is overly dismissive of the immediacy of this issue.

8. The document is way too cautious and has the fingerprints of a ‘Sir Humphrey’ bureaucratic avoidance of anything that might ‘frighten the horses’, motivated as it claims to be by “the wish to avoid imposing unreasonable or impracticable bureaucratic or financial burdens on organisations” and recommending “an incremental approach.” It is too late for incrementalism, about 20 years too late in fact.

At first glance, the consultation document appears to be a rather weak brew rather than the strong medicine that is required.

Campaigners uncover UK local government spending on CCTV

Using Freedom of Information requests, Big Brother Watch in the UK has managed to get hold of figures from many British local governments on how much they spend on CCTV surveillance systems.

According to the Press Association, the annual spend by 336 local councils on the installation and operation of CCTV cameras over a three year-period from 2007/08 and 2009/10 totalled £314,835,170.39 (around $400M US). That’s a large amount of money in an ‘age of austerity’… however it is still not complete as there are another 80 local governments who did not respond to the requests. Interestingly there were still some local governments, albeit only 15, who still did not operate public-area CCTV. That’s not to say that the local police forces in those areas did not, however. There are some cities in Britain, the exception rather than the rule, like Newcastle for instance, where police own and operate public CCTV cameras. I am not sure if these are the types of councils making the claims, and I will have to look at all the figures in greater detail.

The top ten spenders on CCTV over the three years were listed as:

  1. the city of Birmingham, Britain’s second-largest city, and controversial for its special scheme targeted at ‘Muslim’ areas, but also with a massively regenerated and semi-privatised city-centre. £10,476,874.00
  2. Sandwell metropolitan borough, a large urban area to the north-west of Birmingham £5,355,744.00
  3. the city of Leeds, in Yorkshire, whose downtown district is the epitome of the characterless, over-regenerated urban centre. £3,839,675.00,
  4. the city of Edinburgh, capital of Scotland, a wannabe global city, and former G8 meeting host, £3,600,560.00
  5. the borough of Hounslow, on the edge of urban and suburban west London, £3,573,186.45
  6. the borough of Lambeth, a diverse south London district, £3,431,301.00
  7. the city of Manchester, one of the cities we studied in our book on urban resilience, which put a huge amount in to CCTV in the downtown core the wake of a provisional IRA bombing, which has now also been gentrified out of recognition – it also has a signficant suburban gang problem, £3,347,310.00
  8. the borough of Enfield, a leafy north-east London suburb, £3,141,295.00
  9. the borough of Barnet, also in north London, £3,119,020.00
  10. the borough of Barking and Dagenham, in east London, on the borders with Essex, and another area of high racial tensions stoked by a strong local British National Party, £3,090,000.00.

Half of the top ten are London boroughs, outside of the centre of London, showing that CCTV is still diffusing outwards from the heavily surveilled core around the financial centre of the City of London and the government district of Westminster. Not surprisingly, the diffusion is also continuing primarily to the major urban centres beyond London, and the case of Sandwell perhaps shows that the greater Birmingham area is going through a similar process seen in London. In any case, public area video surveillance is not going away in the UK any time soon, and the new government will have to, at some time, demonstrate what it actually meant by introducing greater regulation of CCTV.

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.