Monday, May 19, 2008

Britain: An “Endemic Surveillance Society” (2008)

From the May 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

The control freaks in power who would monitor our every movement, conversation and transaction have had a busy time of late.

This year began with Privacy International, a London based human rights group and watchdog on surveillance and privacy, reporting that Britain and the US are in the lowest category when it comes to privacy and state intrusion into our lives. Greece, Romania and Canada had the best privacy records of 47 countries surveyed by Privacy International. Malaysia, Russia and China were ranked worst.

And there has been a constant stream, in the daily press and on radical websites, of reports of new and advancing methods in surveillance technology.

On 23 February, BBC Online reported that the Home Office had rejected calls by the police to introduce a mandatory DNA database of all UK citizens, arguing that the suggestion “would raise significant practical and ethical issues.”

Already there are 4.5 million people in Britain on the DNA database, earning Britain the ominous title of the most DNA profiled country on the planet. Since 2004, the data on everyone arrested for a recordable offence (all but the most minor of offences) has remained on the system regardless of their age, the seriousness of their alleged offence, and whether or not they were prosecuted. In countless cases, if you go to court and you’re found totally innocent, they still have your DNA, a profile of your personal genetic make-up.

Not enough, say the police who, to highlight their case, point to recent solved murders thanks to the national DNA database. Right-wing reactionaries have backed police calls for such a database, citing the hackneyed argument that if you’re doing nothing wrong, then you have nothing to worry about. Which misses the point by a mile.

There’s nothing radical at the moment in the government resisting police pressure for a DNA database. They simply realise it will be one huge palaver to get DNA samples from almost 6o million people, a lot of whom will kick off big time were they to be threatened with penalties for failing to comply. Just how do you get a DNA profile on every human in Britain? For the moment they are biding their time until they come up with a better way to get around this.

So if you’re thinking that here is the British government defending our civil liberties, forget it. They're still after their surveillance society. The Guardian (23 February) for instance, told us that:
“Passengers travelling between EU countries or taking domestic flights would have to hand over a mass of personal information, including their mobile phone numbers and credit card details, as part of a new package of security measures being demanded by the British government. The data would be stored for 13 years and used to 'profile' suspects.”
One thing few us were aware of was that last summer the EU made a deal with the US Dept. of Homeland Security to provide Washington with 19 pieces of information on all passengers between Europe and the USA, including credit card details and mobile phone numbers.

Not enough, says the British government, who want the system extended to sea and rail travel, to domestic flights and those between EU countries. And is the reactionary British Labour government the only one in Europe to argue for this measure? Yes! Twenty-seven member states were questioned on whether the system should be extended for “more general public policy purposes”, aside from the alleged ‘war on terror’ and crime, and only Britain put its thumbs up. Britain further wants the authority to exchange the information gleaned, your most personal details, with third parties outside the EU.

The Daily Telegraph (7 March) reported:
“All British citizens will have their fingerprints and photographs registered on a national ID database within 10 years under plans outlined by the Government”.
The Government announced that a national ID card, carrying 49 pieces of information about us, will be phased in within two years and that millions of workers in “sensitive jobs”, like teachers, carers and health workers, will be among the first to have their most personal details stored on to the national identity register.

The first unfortunates to be targeted will be foreign nationals working in Britain and who will possibly be issued with cards from this November. Then, next year, they predict that the first British citizens will be enrolled beginning with some airport staff, power station employees and people working on the London Olympics site.

The Daily Mail (11 March) reported that some one-and-a-half-million 10 to 18-year-olds will have had their genetic profiles stored by this time next year, which strengthened arguments that the Government is moving towards a DNA database of all British adults "by stealth".
“Since 2004 police have had the power to take DNA samples from anyone over the age of ten who is arrested, regardless of whether they are later charged, convicted, or found to be innocent….But analysis by the campaign groups Action on Rights for Children and Genewatch has found that the figure conceals a far larger DNA-gathering operation, since the profiles of juveniles who have since turned 18 are no longer counted in the official total.”
Earlier, the Independent (17 February) informed us that schools will be very much preparing kids for life in the police state, where cops have increasing powers. An article on knife crime in schools commenced:
“Parents will be told that they must allow their children to be searched at any time within school premises if they want to get them into the schools of their choice, under new plans to rid Britain's classrooms of the scourge of knives.
The Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, will put the battle against illegal weapons at the top of her agenda when she unveils her Tackling Violence Action Plan tomorrow. The blueprint for tackling knife-related violence will include a radical move to give police hundreds of metal detectors to catch young people carrying hidden weapons in schools, clubs and pubs.”

Three days later the Independent reported that teachers had backed the introduction of metal detectors in schools:
“Although the initiative carries disturbing echoes of some US cities, where high-school pupils are routinely scanned for weapons, head teachers said it could help to tackle violence in high-crime areas. Metal detectors are still relatively rare and hugely controversial in US schools, but they have been used, particularly in rougher inner-city neighbourhoods, for at least 20 years with some success.”
This is a disturbing vision of the future. Not only does your kid get to be fingerprinted at school, as now, their details stored and their having to have their dabs scanned before even getting a school meal (as was done by stealth at my son’s comprehensive school, without the prior knowledge of parents) but they will face spot searches, yanked from class to be frisked by some over-zealous teacher, as well as having to go through metal detectors.

How long before kids are urged to report to staff on any subversive comment heard at home, being rewarded with a medal when they do? If you’re aiming on implementing a total surveillance society, then what better way than to start with kids and acclimatise them to incessant surveillance from an early age.

And if you can target kids, who are all too ready to accept the ‘wisdom’ of their elders and superiors, and who are in no position to object, then why not also target another section of society who have fewer rights – prisoners – who can be conned into having their movements monitored if they think its will result in a non-custodial sentence?

Less that two weeks after Privacy International announced that Britain was an “endemic surveillance society” we had the Independent on Sunday (13 January) reporting with a front page headline: “Prisoners to be chipped like dogs”. All that was missing was the subheading: Welcome to the police state Britain.
"In a bid to implement home curfews on the more ‘errant’ members of our society and to create more space in Britain’s overcrowded jails, ministers have come up with plans to implant ‘machine-readable microchips’ beneath the skin of thousands of offenders as part of an expansion of the electronic tagging scheme.
The system is already in place for dogs and cats, cattle, cars and airport luggage, for instance, so it was really only a matter of time before someone came up with the bright idea of using ‘spychips’ on humans. Said one senior minister: “We have wanted to take advantage of this technology for several years, because it seems a sensible solution to the problems we are facing in this area…We have looked at it and gone back to it and worried about the practicalities and the ethics, but when you look at the challenges facing the criminal justice system, it's time has come.”

So much then for the battle cry of the Labour Party when it came to power: “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.” The latest move is tantamount to admitting Labour policies have failed, that crime cannot be controlled within the context of capitalism and that class inequality will forever throw up a “criminal element”.
The Independent observed:
“More than 17,000 individuals, including criminals and suspects released on bail, are subject to electronic monitoring at any one time, under curfews requiring them to stay at home up to 12 hours a day. But official figures reveal that almost 2,000 offenders a year escape monitoring by tampering with ankle tags or tearing them off. Curfew breaches rose from 11,435 in 2005 to 43,843 in 2006 – up 283 per cent. The monitoring system, which relies on mobile-phone technology, can fail if the network crashes.”
The idea now is for offenders to have tags, consisting of a toughened glass capsule holding a computer chip, injected into the back of the arm with a hypodermic needle.

It goes without saying that human rights campaigners should be the first to expostulate. Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti commented: “If the Home Office doesn't understand why implanting a chip in someone is worse than an ankle bracelet, they don't need a human-rights lawyer; they need a common-sense bypass.”

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: “This is the sort of daft idea that comes up from the department every now and then, but tagging people in the same way we tag our pets cannot be the way ahead. Treating people like pieces of meat does not seem to represent an improvement in the system to me.”

One company plans deeper implants that could vibrate, electroshock the implantee, broadcast a message, or serve as a microphone to transmit conversations. What is being proposed, then, in some quarters is the tasering of offenders, via satellite, from outer-space. Step outside the confines of your curfew area and ZAP! How long before we find Gordon Brown and Co. contemplating the idea of each and every one of us carrying a vein deep implant, with defenders of the idea regurgitating the old line: “if you’re doing nothing wrong, then you have nothing to worry about?”

Consumer privacy expert Liz McIntyre said: “Some folks might foolishly discount all of these downsides and futuristic nightmares since the tagging is proposed for criminals like rapists and murderers. The rest of us could be next.”

Most workers are totally oblivious to the creeping surveillance society, the full police state, where people with powerful interests to defend can track us 24-7. It is done so slowly, so subtly, that the majority of people don’t realise what is going on. Indeed, many who are cognisant of future surveillance proposals believe it is harmless and is done with their best interests at heart – so wise are our leaders. Little by little, workers are becoming acclimatised to the Big Brother Society, in which they will have your DNA, your fingerprints your credit card details… everything… Everything will eventually be known about everyone.

They’re telling us all that we are not to be trusted - none of us – and that we need to be surveilled constantly and that it is all in our own interests, for the good of society. They want our genetic profiles logged, our financial transactions, our medical history, and our telephone, email and web-surfing habits catalogued and shared with security agencies all over the world. Well, trust is a two-way thing, so why should we trust them one inch?
John Bissett