DATABASE STATE: THE EROSION OF BRITISH CIVIL LIBERTIES
“We can not defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.”
EDWARD R. MURROW
The United Kingdom is a nation of over sixty million people. It rests on the third most populated island on earth, with an average of over six hundred citizens living per each of its square miles. 90% of the UK’s population live in urbanised areas. Its nearest neighbour, France, hosts a population of only a few million more, but with an area of nearly three times its size.
In recent years, the UK’s economy (currently around the sixth largest GDP), and liberal benefits system have provided a much needed reprieve from the crumbling governments of Africa and failing economies of Eastern Europe. Even in times of recession, the UK remains a developed nation of enviable stability.
So what has caused the UK, once a beacon of liberty, to be ranked in the top five nations, only just below Russia and China, for abuse of state power and public surveillance?
Privacy International, an NGO based in the UK with offices in the US, conducted a study in 2007 to outline worldwide levels of privacy abuse. Out of the 47 analysed, Greece was the sole country to be judged as having adequate safeguards.
The UK ranked amongst the worst for the following:
- Constitutional protection
- Identity measures / Biometrics
- Visual surveillance
- Communications interceptions
- Communications data retention
- Surveillance of medical, financial, and physical movement
- Border and trans border issues
What is a Civil Right, and what are Civil Liberties?
‘Civil and political rights are a class of rights and freedoms that protect individuals from the government and state power and assure the ability to participate in the civil and political life of the state.’
‘Civil liberties are freedoms that protect an individual from the government of the nation in which they reside. Civil liberties set limits for government so that it cannot abuse its power and interfere unduly with the lives of its citizens.’
The problem that the UK faces lies not with sudden implementation, but the steady ‘creep’ of measures already legislated, the furthest potential of which could see the country plunged into a 1984’esque Draconian nightmare, but as for the present, Oceania is still far away.
The word ‘democracy’ derives from the Greek ‘Demos’ (people) and Kratos (strength). Its direct meaning is ‘the power of the people.’ This upheld, every Citizen of a country under democratic rule rests on the premise that they are valued as having the ability to contribute to the acceptance or rejection of their leaders. It takes only a brisk look at history to realise that a system as simple as democracy should not be taken for granted.
The UK provides for its people a first class medical system, financial support to the unemployed (and uninspired), a comprehensive, largely uncorrupted Police force, a well trained and equipped military, and a host of civil services which in comparison project other nations back into the Stone Age.
“Government big enough to supply everything you need is big enough to take everything you have” THOMAS JEFFERSON
There are nearly twenty million more people in The UK than one hundred years ago, and the figure will rise into the mid sixties within ten years. Use a nightclub as a metaphor. The security is our Government, the clubbers are UK citizens, and the Club is the country. The UK is the equivalent of a wall to wall filled nightclub of revellers, all of which pose a certain risk to each other and ultimately to the security staff themselves. Every weekend, there seems to be trouble of some form, and the club seems to be getting more and more popular. After weeks of fights, arguments and drunken high jinks, the security staff are getting tired and disillusioned. It’s not in the interest of the club to do it, but the management have asked to start taking the details of the trouble makers and refusing their entry. The result, although losing the club a significant amount of money, frees up the attention of the security staff to be able to recognise new trouble makers and other potential threats like drug dealing and vandalism.
The basis of the government’s actions has seeded from a deep set requirement for stability. The maintenance of public contentment is a constant task, and parliamentary decisions which please the majority often infuriate the minority. This said, there has to be a line drawn between the public’s opinion of political process, and reactions that scream that something is wrong.
THE TERRORISM ACT 2000
Since the inception of the Terrorism Act, the UK has raised the longest period of pre-charge detention of any democracy on the planet, longer even than Zimbabwe. At 42 days, it stands as a constant pillar of debate. Unfortunate for the terrorist one may think, but this sweeping piece of legislation is gathering innocent citizens in its grasp. It is the use of the Terrorism Act on point of action that has proven to be the problem. Just one of many examples over the last nine years saw a disabled twelve year old boy and his parents detained under the act, the police accusing his mother of people trafficking her mixed race son. The family were surrounded by ten police officers for two hours, all under the allowance of the Terrorism Act.
Coupled with this are the powers of the Terrorism Act’s ‘control orders’ – a series of severe restrictions placed on people merely suspected of involvement in Terrorism. Measures include control of who the suspect may speak to, barring of the internet, television and telephone, and restrictions on when a person may leave their home and where they may go, effectively a house arrest of up to sixteen hours per day.
Stop and search, fuelled with new terrorism powers, has cases running at over forty thousand per year.
IDENTITY CARDS AND BIOMETRICS
In 2003, the Government announced its plans for the ID card, supported by the National Identity Register, an expansive database storing the personal information of every UK citizen and foreign national. Over fifty pieces of information, as well as iris scans and fingerprints are expected to be taken in order to be shared with complete transparency between relevant departments, agencies, and even foreign governments. The ID card system promises to tackle benefit fraud, illegal immigration, and terrorism. Three major points easily render the plan useless:
Benefit fraud is most practiced by people providing false information about their personal circumstances, not saying they are someone else altogether.
Short term visitors to this country (under three months) are not required to carry ID cards. Even if this was amended, the digital information stored in ID cards and Biometric passports can be cloned within minutes, something that those involved with illegal immigration would surely exploit.
The ID card system has promised to help prevent terrorism, although Spanish ID cards did not stop the 2004 Madrid bombings, Turkish cards did not stop the 2003 Istanbul bombings, and German ID cards did not stop the Hamburg terrorist cell that planned 9/11. Again, short term visitors will not be required to carry cards. The ID plan, if implemented, will cost around £18bn. The individual will be expected to pay for their card and biometric passport at a cost of just under £100. Although the terrorist threat is real, surely this vast sum of money could be used to reinforce our homeland security and intelligence?
CLOSED CIRCUIT TELEVISION CAMERAS (CCTV)
The UK has the largest collection of CCTV cameras in the world. At around 4.2 million, it provides one camera per 14 citizens. Londoners can expect to be filmed by separate units up to 300 times per day, all under the watch of a tiny island with almost a fifth of the world’s share of surveillance cameras.
It is wrong to portray CCTV cameras in a similar light to the ID card. They do help. Without doubt there have been huge benefits in crime prevention since their inception, but CCTV was introduced in the 1980s to tackle crime, anti social behaviour, and terrorism.
We now see CCTV monitoring speed limits, parking laws and bus lanes, not to mention the number plate recognition system installed into the cameras of the London congestion charge, DVLA and police monitoring systems. No one in the UK has any idea of exactly how may CCTV cameras are in use, only the 4.2 million estimate. There are obvious benefits, but one must ask whether their use has reached its limit. Of all CCTV footage captured by police to be used as evidence, 80% is useless. Since 1997, over half a billion pounds has been spent on CCTV equipment that has provided material that cannot be used by the police. Again, the ominous potential of function creep could create an environment not dissimilar to the images of Minority Report, the short story of Philip K. Dick first published in 1956.
Enter a world of facial recognition, of conversation analysing microphones, backed by aerial drones. Imagine a society where individual characteristics are collected and logged over the course of your lifetime, to be referred back to when signs appear of suspicious or high risk behaviour. Imagine adverts appearing before you as you walk down the street, which somehow seem to tend to exactly what you would most want at the time. Of course, because your body language and movements have just been analysed by one of the advertising systems that you are approaching. Imagine a job interview with biometric and psychometric tests. Imagine the loneliness of age when nursing is made obsolete by remote monitoring, needing fewer and fewer human staff. Imagine walking into a store, taking what you want, and walking out. Theft? The high street of the future is a network of RFID readers which link directly to your bank account. Seamless integration between personal devices now separate will be normality, each communicating with each other, the internet, and GPS satellites as you go about your business. It is a maelstrom of potential threats to Civil Liberty, and the foundations of something far deeper if allowed to be implemented.
DEOXYRIBONUCLEIC ACID (DNA)
Our DNA contains the basic codes of our human form, storing our individual physical characteristics and family traits. The police DNA database was first introduced in 1995. Its goal was to enable police investigators to collect, store, and reference DNA samples from crime scenes and suspects, helping them to come to well evidenced and reliable prosecutions.
The UK now has the largest DNA database on the planet, over ten times the size of the US in relevant terms. 5 million individual profiles are logged within the system, a figure approaching ten percent of the population. Samples have been taken from over a million innocent people, including around 100,000 children, their data staying in the system without any apparent need.
In one week, the average person living in Britain has 3,254 pieces of personal information stored about him or her, most of which is kept in databases for years and in some cases indefinitely. The data include details about shopping habits, mobile phone use, emails, locations during the day, journeys and internet searches. Phone companies retain data about their customers and give it to around 650 public bodies on request.
Every day the average person makes three mobile phone calls and sends at least two text messages.
Each time the network provider logs information about who was called as well as the caller’s location and direction of travel, worked out by triangulation from phone masts.
Customers can also have their locations tracked even when they are not using their phones, as the devices send out unique identifying signals at regular intervals.
All of this information can be accessed by police and other public authorities investigating crimes.
Internet service providers (ISPs) compile information about their customers when they go online, including name, address, IP address, any browser used and location.
They also keep details of emails, such as to whom they were sent, together with the date and time.
Internet search engines also compile data about their users, including the IP address and what was searched for. Google receives around 68 searches from the average person each day and stores this data for 18 months.
Store “loyalty” cards also retain large amounts of information about individuals who have signed up to use them. They link a person’s personal details to the outlets used, the transaction times and how much is spent.
In the case of Nectar cards, which are used by more than 10 million people in Britain at least once a week, information from dozens of shops is compiled, giving a detailed picture of a cardholder’s shopping habits.
Banks can also be required to hand over personal account information to the authorities if requested as part of an investigation.
They also provide personal data to credit reference agencies, debt collectors and fraud prevention organisations.
Debit and credit card transactions can give information about where and on what people are spending their money.
Travel passes such as the Oyster Card used can also reveal remarkable amounts of information about an individual. When they are registered to a person’s name, they record journey history, dates, times and fares.
A spokesman for TFL, which runs the Oyster Card system, insisted that access to this information was restricted to its customer services agents.
Police, however, can also obtain this information and have used Oyster Card journey records as evidence in criminal cases.
As Citizens of Britain, we are protected by the European Convention on Human Rights, with which we were one of the first countries to sign up to in 1953. The Bill consists of six separate protocols, within which are the basic laws that grant us our freedom as citizens. These include comprehensive protection of privacy, and around 15 sub categories that cover telephone tapping to search by customs and excise. It is vitally important that we remember our power as citizens. There are too many people who coin the phrase ‘what can we do?’ and this is simply wrong.
Civil Action and Judicial Review are the vehicles that provide us with the substance of our power as citizens. The reality beyond the melancholic attitudes of Britain is that with due attention and research, plus assertiveness on point of prosecution or other event, we can vastly improve our standing in relation to the threat to our rights.
As before mentioned, the concern is not sudden implementation, but the steady function creep of measures already legislated. All of the areas of threat to our Civil Liberties mentioned in this article have their benefits to our society; however the issue that must be reinforced is the line between relevant effect, and encroachment on privacy and thus Liberty. If the laws which govern these measures are allowed to bleed into each other, the potential for a database state is starkly real. It is the follow
on from this which poses the true threat, because when we have no rights left, all that is left will be right.
This article contains extracts from the excellent book ‘The Assault on Liberty’ by Dominic Raab.
Also the Daily Telegraph article ‘How Big Brother watches your every move’ by Richard Grey
And extracts from the website http://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/