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…).

UK ID Card Program scrapped after election (and more)

As both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats in the UK had the scrapping of the National Identity Card card scheme as part of their manifesto, the unpopular program has been suspended immediately by the new coalition government, pending further announcements.

The full statement reads as follows:

“Both Parties that now form the new Government stated in their manifestos that they will cancel Identity Cards and the National Identity Register. We will announce in due course how this will be achieved. Applications can continue to be made for ID cards but we would advise anyone thinking of applying to wait for further announcements.

Until Parliament agrees otherwise, identity cards remain valid and as such can still be used as an identity document and for travel within Europe. We will update you with further information as soon as we have it.”

But although the cards will almost certainly go, despite the statement it is unclear yet what will be the fate of the National Identity Register (NIR), the new central database at the heart of the scheme. Neither party, and the Tories especially, said anything specific in their manifestos about scrapping the database, so we will see what happens here – although the statement issued seems categorical about this too. Although the end of the card scheme reduces opportunities for the ‘papers, please’ style abuse of minorities, it is the database that is of biggest concern to those interested in surveillance and social sorting. I have long favoured a secure central government Information Clearinghouse, which whilst transferring necessary information as needed and consented to between different parts of government, would not in itself hold any data. I suspect however, that some fudge will emerge!

In the meantime, the price of the coalition also was reported to include new legislation regulating video surveillance (CCTV) cameras (only about 20 years too late, but that’s the speed of British politics for you), and the review of many of the new powers in the (Anti-)Terrorism and Civil Contingencies Acts (and perhaps the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act too – though it hasn’t yet been mentioned specifically). It is very rare that legislation is repealed or rolled back but we may yet see an increase in civil liberties under the new coalition. The one big worry in this are though is the Conservative opposition to the Human Rights Act – however with their Liberal Democrat partners being committed to the HRA, I can’t see any moves to repeal the act in this Parliament.

I am cautiously optimistic…

UK Government to Increase Postal Surveillance

For a long time now, the Royal Mail has been a service that prided itself on confidentiality. Historian, David Vincent, noted in his 1998 book, The Culture of Secrecy in Britain 1832-1998, that one of the first major scandals over surveillance in the modern era was the 1844 scandal when an Italian exile, Joseph Mazzini, who was resident in London, discovered that the British government were secretly opening his mail. The prompted discussion in the House of Commons and outrage that such low ‘foreign’ practices were taking place in Britain.

In reality, of course the mail of targets of intelligence services is opened and read regularly, but in law in the UK, if mail is going to be opened – and this can only be done by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) – the recipient has to be notified and present when it is done. Indeed, it’s been one of the characteristic complaints about many different states’ recent attempts to extend so-called ‘lawful access’ provisions to electronic mail and Internet sites by requiring ISPs to retain traffic data and provide it to the state upon request, that this goes far beyond what has ever been done with mail, except in totalitarian societies like the former East Germany, whose Stasi were notorious for opening letters either secretly or in many cases, quite openly.

So, the UK has now, it seems, decided to redress the balance. It will not of course, hold back on the lawful access provisions regarding electronic communications in the Telecommunications Bill. No, of course not. Instead, according to the Guardian this weekend, it is planning what they had probably hoped would be a quiet little amendment to the Postal Services Act, removing any requirement to notify people when their mail is to be opened. I am sure there will be the usual ‘safeguards’ and ‘codes of conduct’, in other words, the voluntary provisions which hae characterised recent British government’s pathetic and limited attempts to provide for privacy and other civil rights. But essentially, this is the end of any generalised assumption of confidentiality of the mail in Britain. It runs contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights (and therefore the UK Human Rights Act too). Every time you think there is no way the government could get any more repressive and get away with it, they do – will it be different this time?

SSN to do new Surveillance Society report for ICO

The same team that did the influential Report on the Surveillance Society for the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) back in 2006 will be doing a follow-up report on the state of surveillance in the UK for the ICO and the national Parliament this year. Many of the things discussed in that report, which I coordinated, have been accelerating and intensifying, most obviously things like airport body-scanning and the use of drone surveillance cameras, but other things have stalled or slowed, for example the implementation of the ID card regime and more widespread use of RFID tags outside of inventory systems. We’ll be assessing the state of play and making some recommendations as a result. The project this time will be led by Professor Charles Raab in Political Science at Edinburgh University, and one of the world’s leading experts on privacy regulation, and will also include Dr Kirstie Ball of the Open University Business School, Professor Clive Norris of the Centre for Criminological Research at Sheffield, Professor Steve Graham from the Global Urban Research Unit (my old place) at Newcastle University – all in the UK – as well as myself and Professor David Lyon here at the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s University, in Ontario. It will be great to be back working with the whole team again, and I hope we can contribute to a more focused debate and some real changes to UK policy and practice. We shall see…

UK’s secret national flying camera strategy

If there was any doubt left, it seems the British government has finally given up all pretense of trying to balance civil liberties and security. A plan has been revealed by The Guardian newspaper for a national strategy for surveillance by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). And we are not just talking the micro-helicopter UAVs used by many UK police forces already, but 22m-long airships, the G22, which can stay airborne for many hours. The military drones will require special certification for civilian use.

And of course, these devices are supposed to be in place for the 2012 Olympics, but even in the documentation secured under the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA), it is made very clear that the drones will be used for a multiplicity of ‘routine’ operations, including from orders and fisheries activity to conventional policing and even “[detecting] theft from cash machines, preventing theft of tractors and monitoring antisocial driving… event security and covert urban surveillance” as well as all the kinds of activities that the already controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) covers, including “fly-posting, fly-tipping, abandoned vehicles, abnormal loads, waste management”.

If this wasn’t bad enough, the whole thing has been developed in secret with the British governments favourite arms manufacturer, BAe Sytems, is projected to run as a public-private partnership due to the massive expense, and it has even been suggested that the surveillance data could be sold to private companies, according to The Guardian.

And the ‘selling’ of this to the public has already begun. Some suggestions of the use of high-flying drones had been made by Kent police, who had claimed it would be to “monitor shipping and detect immigrants crossing from France”. However, as The Guardian goes on to show this was a ruse which was part of long-term PR strategy to divert attention away from civil liberties issues. One 2007 document apparently states, “There is potential for these [maritime] uses to be projected as a ‘good news’ story to the public rather than more ‘big brother’.”

It’s really hard to say anything polite about these plans, the way they have been developed, and the complete lack of interest in or concern for the British public’s very real and growing fear of a surveillance state in the UK.

A footnote: almost as soon as this news was revealed, the British government raised the terrorist threat level to ‘severe’, without providing any indication that was any specific threat. Now, this may be entirely coincidental (and there are a couple of high-level meetings on Yemen and Afghanistan strategy in London next week), but if the threat level was much higher, the British public might suddenly be more amenable to the introduction of something to protect them from this ‘severe’ threat, like, say, flying drone cameras, don’t you think?