Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
In 2004, Richard Thomas, the information commissioner, warned that Britain was ‘sleepwalking into a surveillance society’. In 2006 he suggested that we were ‘waking up to a surveillance society that is in fact all around us’. He hasn’t said much this year, but by implication it must be around breakfast-time in the surveillance society by now.
It’s easy to get worked up about surveillance. By definition, the surveillance society is not a democratic society in which surveillance is pervasive. It’s one in which surveillance is so pervasive that it threatens the very fabric of democracy. The libertarian intuition that we are ‘descending into a police state’ is borne of this concern. As ever more laws are introduced to regulate social and material life (not least the 3,000 new criminal offences said to have been introduced by New Labour), and ever more aspects of our lives are monitored and recorded, the more we are asked to account for ourselves and the more we can be held accountable for.
In a nutshell, the problem is that it is but a few discrete steps from the information society we cherish to the surveillance society we fear. To avail ourselves of today’s hi-tech goods and services we have little choice but to allow those who provide them to collect more and more information about us. And let’s be honest: as long as they keep this information secure and confidential, we’re not all that bothered. Secretly, we may even quite like being profiled, targeted and ‘rewarded’ with Amazon book recommendations, discounts and freebies.
Although unwanted ‘spam’ has gotten beyond a joke, the principles of ‘data protection’ appear to work reasonably well in the private sector. The 1995 and 1997 EC directives, and the 1998 UK Act, have imposed clear legal obligations on ‘data controllers’ to protect personal information, while ‘taking your privacy seriously’ has become a corporate mantra.
So far so good: things to hide, but little to fear. Bring the state into the debate, however, and the equation quickly changes. A new generation of surveillance technologies, population databases, identity management systems, ‘dataveillance’, data-sharing and data-mining tools are providing the state with the capacity to construct an almost unimaginably detailed picture of our private lives. At the same time, our celebrated data protection laws are being systematically circumvented and unravelled in order to legitimise the very practices they were designed to prevent.
Who’s tapping your phone?
A few years ago, the police needed a warrant to access your telephone records – now all they need is your phone number. This revolution in communications surveillance was carefully orchestrated. In 2000, parliament adopted the misleadingly titled Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) which, rather than regulating state surveillance, bequeathed to the police and a host of other public bodies the spook-like power to access directly the records held by communications companies. In place of a judicial warrant, an ‘authorisation’ by a senior officer would now suffice. In accordance with data protection rules, telecoms companies were also duly deleting our phone records after we had paid our phone bills (a matter of a few months at most). ‘Not so fast,’ said the Home Office, using the 2001 Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act (ATCSA) to introduce a voluntary code on ‘data retention’, under which the major ‘telcos’ would not only retain their records for up to one year, but provide the police with direct access to their databases. The House of Lords did its level best to restrict the purpose of the Act to ‘serious crime’ but this would inevitably prove meaningless once data had been retained.
Not content with the voluntary code, the Home Office now demanded mandatory data retention by all telecoms companies and internet service providers (ISPs). But rather than returning to parliament, which had already judged ATCSA a bridge too far, the UK government went to the EU to seek an agreement with the force of European law. A discreet amendment to EU data protection rules followed in 2002, and an EC directive on data retention was eventually adopted in 2006.
In 2007, the Home Office returned to parliament to make its voluntary code mandatory by statutory order (meaning no debate), with the justification that the UK was merely fulfilling its obligations under EU law. This is a flagrant case of ‘policy laundering’. Just as ‘money laundering’ describes the passage of illegitimate funds through outside institutions and back into legitimate circulation, policy laundering involves the use of intergovernmental organisations to agree policies that lack political legitimacy in order to bring them into practice.
The cumulative effect of mandatory data retention cannot be understated. All our telephone and internet traffic data must now be stored for at least 12 months (perhaps longer in future – up to three years as in Ireland, or five as in Italy) in case the police or other state agencies need to look at it. The list of other agencies includes, among others, the Tax Office, the Food Standards Agency, the Department of Health, the Immigration Service, the Gaming Board, the Charities Commission and 475 local councils.
Should the police wish to see your telephone records today, they no longer need to show ‘probable cause’ to a judge. They just need to turn on their computers (or phone a friend). In 2005/6, this power was used a staggering 439,000 times over 12 months – a figure certain to rise with mandatory data retention and its extension to internet usage by 2009. The lack of independent scrutiny means we can only guess what the police were up to, but in accessing records more than 1,200 times a day, we can be certain that their activities went far beyond the scope of organised crime and terrorism.
Pulling a Swift one
Telecommunications data retention is but one example of the state placing legal obligations on the private sector to facilitate surveillance. ‘Policy laundering’ is again in evidence, somewhat ironically, in the EC money laundering directives of 1991, 2001 and 2005. These directives have effectively reversed the principles of banking secrecy and privacy in financial transactions by placing a legal obligation on financial institutions to retain data for five years and report all ‘suspicious financial transactions’ and customers to the police. In the UK, ‘failure to disclose’ those suspicions is now a criminal offence punishable by up to five years imprisonment.
The money laundering directives now also apply to auditors, accountants, tax advisors, estate agents, lawyers and notaries, dealers in high-value goods and casinos (not that this has done anything to curb systematic tax evasion and corruption by the rich and powerful), while under the UK Terrorism Act 2000, we are all now liable to prosecution for ‘failure to disclose’ any suspicions we may harbour about terrorist activities. As these so-called ‘due diligence’ obligations come to represent the wholesale privatisation of surveillance, government whistle-blowing, as David Kelly and Craig Murray can testify, is positively discouraged.
Further obligations have been placed on the airline industry to provide states with information about their passengers (so-called ‘passenger name records’ or ‘PNR’). Under successive EU-US PNR agreements – which the European Parliament voted against on four occasions – US agencies now have direct access to European passenger reservation databases. There are few meaningful restrictions on the use or onward exchange of the data they extract. This means that even if you’re only taking a BA flight from London to Amsterdam, up to 35 categories of personal information that you supply could find themselves in the US Department of Homeland Security’s inbox. Perhaps it’s time to start reading the ‘terms and conditions’ before ticking that box? Except that if you don’t tick that box, you can’t book the ticket.
In other cases, corporations are simply handing their data over to state agencies in the absence of any lawful requirement to do so. In 2006 the New York Times broke the story that the US was secretly monitoring every transaction sent through the global Swift money transfer organisation – which is based in Brussels – via an illegal ‘mirror’ in the US. The EU responded by formally granting the US access to the Swift data.
It is suggested that the use of ‘mirrors’ by the US government is widespread, and endemic where US-based multinationals are concerned. This begs a question: when corporations are requested to hand over or provide states with access to their data in the name of combating terrorism or some other evil, are they really going to refuse in practice? The same question applies to public bodies, with Transport for London apparently all too ready to provide the security services with a ‘backdoor’ into the congestion charge and Oystercard systems.
The debate about ID cards masks far more insidious developments. Over the coming decade, the vast majority of the EU’s law-abiding population will be fingerprinted, registered and placed under de facto surveillance. Once again, governments have taken advantage of the EU to ‘harmonise’ national policy on the introduction of ‘biometric’ passports, ID cards, resident permits and visas. Article 18(3) EC of the EU Treaty should have prohibited EU legislation from the outset as it states clearly that the power to adopt legislation ‘shall not apply to provisions on passports, identity cards, residence permits or any other such document’. The member states simply ignored this provision and then used the new ‘reform treaty’ to belatedly add these powers to the EU mandate.
Under the ID Cards Act of 2006, from around 2010 everyone renewing their UK passport will be required to attend one of 69 ‘enrolment centres’, where they will be fingerprinted (all ten), photographed and asked any of the 200 questions designed by the Home Office to test the applicant’s identity, provenance and entitlement to remain in the country. Under EU rules, applicants for a visa to any EU member state will soon be subject to an almost identical process in their own country (with data retained in EU databases even if the visa is refused).
Your new biometric passport will contain an embedded radio frequency identification (RFID) chip that includes your fingerprints and other personal data, an identity card (with another RFID chip) and a number. The RFID chip is there to transmit your data, from distance, to special airport scanners, which scream ‘hack me’ to all those so inclined.
Your special number relates to your record in the UK national identity register (NIR), which links you to every other piece of information the state has ever collected about you. As the campaign group NO2ID has explained, the NIR will become ‘an index to all other official and quasi-official records. Through cross-references and an audit trail of all checks on the register, the NIR [will] be the key to a total life history of every individual, to be retained even after death.’
At the same time, a new generation of ‘e-borders’ will mean that all entrants are fingerprinted upon entry and given a de facto police record. The UK ‘e-borders’ system is to contain up to 90 specific categories of data on individuals and will record all movement into and out of the UK.
Shocked by the Stasi analogy in the subheading? You may be missing the point: the Stasi didn’t ask many questions because they already knew all the answers. Nor is it simply a case of ‘Business or pleasure, sir?’ making way for some rather more direct questioning. As more and more data is collected on the premise of border control, the techniques and technologies deployed at the border are simultaneously being deployed on the streets. ‘Multi-agency’ police checks (basically roadblocks with benefits, tax, immigration and DVLA inspectors in attendance), massive immigration raids and collective expulsions, hand-held fingerprint scanners, mobile access to police computer systems – these are all now matters of policy rather than legislation, and the subject of little if any debate.
You are a security risk
States are also investing heavily – and usually secretly – in the kind of predictive algorithms developed for direct marketing purposes in the belief that ‘risk profiling’ will help identify terrorists, criminals, psychopaths, problem children (see ‘Generation ID’, opposite) and other dangerous people before they have the chance to do us harm. This corresponds to more and more ‘preventative’ police powers – Asbos, security-based detention and so on. As EU policies, ‘terrorist profiling’ and computer-assisted passenger screening are now being introduced across Europe.
These types of programmes raise several fundamental objections. Primarily, by using assumptions about ethnicity, religion, nationality, lifestyle, education, health, wealth or criminal record as indicators of risk, these systems are intrinsically discriminatory. In turn, they inevitably lead to actions against large numbers of innocent people on a scale that renders the exercise both unacceptable and pointless. In the wake of the discovery of the Hamburg cell’s involvement in the 9/11 conspiracy, for example, German federal police agencies collected and analysed data on some 8.3 million Muslims (and suspected Muslims) in Germany but failed – despite hundreds of surveillance operations, arrests and interrogations – to find a single terrorist.
As Douwe Korff, international law professor at London Metropolitan University, points out, it is important to stress that this is not something that can be fixed by better design: ‘Attempts to identify very rare incidents or targets from a very large data set are mathematically certain to result in either an unacceptably high number of “false positives” (identifying innocent people as suspects) or an unacceptably low number of “false negatives” (not identifying real criminals or terrorists). This is referred to scientifically as the “base-rate fallacy”; colloquially, as “If you are looking for a needle in a haystack, it doesn’t help to throw more hay on the stack.”‘
Despite the fact that the judicial regulation of surveillance is fast disappearing, many liberals have faith that the surveillance society can be somehow ‘democratised’ – a few new data protection rules here, a little bit more accountability there. This is disingenuous to say the least: mass surveillance, data retention and risk-profiling are the very things data protection law was designed to prevent. Once these practices are introduced, the law can give little practical effect to the supposedly fundamental right to protection from undue or arbitrary interference by the state.
Others suggest that the very same technology used to hold the citizen to account can be turned inwards, so that ‘glass citizens’ are governed by transparent states, as it were. But in a country that won’t even allow telephone intercepts as evidence in court because the police and security services don’t want to compromise their secret listening programmes, this appears a remote proposition.
So the job rests firmly with what remains of society. But in the absence of any rational appraisal as to the desirability and effectiveness of surveillance systems, never mind more concerted efforts to halt the march of the surveillance state (particularly via the EU), there can be little cause for optimism. And if you tolerate this, your children really will be next.
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
’We believe in you. We are with you. We will never forget.’ Grenfell solidarity sweeps East London in mass banner drops from housing estates
Michael Calderbank profiles Jeremy Corbyn's new supporters in parliament
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art
Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs
Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee
Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power
The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced
India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya
North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero
The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava
France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati
This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help
PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank
Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media
I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to
We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS
Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank
Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland
Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones
The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya
The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.
An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now
The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee