‘Big Brother’ was just the warm-up act: 10 August 2010

It might just be a sign of the times, or that journalists have caught the surveillance bug, but there’s an awful lot of stories flying around about surveillance into the lives of ordinary citizens. 

The latest is the British government’s decision to use credit-referencing agencies to try and find anomalous spending patterns amongst the population to see if they can weedle out benefit cheats. The credit referencing agencies will be paid a bounty for each ‘cheat’ they catch. Wait for the tidal wave of wrongful reports, and the difficulty those people will have repairing their records; it’s difficult enough to find out what information the many agencies have on an individual as it is. There will no doubt be protections for those agencies so that an individual cannot take action against them if they are wrong. A maxim in intelligence history is never pay on results, just pay a regular amount. Bounty rewards encourage stretched reporting. The think-tank Demos are undoubtedly correct when they say the government should focus on the application stage; stop the problem at source? Regardless, this is the latest in the very many examples where the big-state decides to have a dabble in the lives of ordinary citizens (and no, I don’t want to pay my tax pounds out to those who don’t deserve them). So, the devil will be in the detail of this proposal – of course – but we only need to turn to Richard Aldrich’s book to see that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000) was used over 500,000 times in 2008. Now, that’s the ability of public authorities, including local councils, to request telephone, internet, email etc information on individuals without needing to seek a warrant. I’m very sanguine about intelligence agency activity; I’m very un-sanguine about local authorities with this kind of power, particularly an intrusive power that does not require a warrant.

An excellent example of the abuse of RIPA by a local council, comes from Poole, in leafy and pleasant Dorset. The good officers at Poole decided to use the counterterrorism legislation to see if a couple lived in a school catchment area. Not only did they spend countless thousands of pounds conducting 21 surveillance operations against this couple, they were witless enough to tell them about it afterwards! The Investigative Powers Tribunal found that the council had misused the act. Poole were also accused last year of spying on the refuse bins of local residents to put together social profiles (they had also looked in the bins of the school couple to see if they could work out if they lived there), but they deny that they have done this systematically. Now, you’ll have to take my word for it that Poole is not the most vibrant of local authorities, so my extrapolation would be that they are not the worst offenders at this kind of practice. My argument is not one of blanket civil-liberties – I think this is an argument which has probably had its day – it’s more an argument about ‘who’ has these investigative powers, because if we continue to allow an ever-expanding number of officials and offices have the power to look into our private space, then we may as well concede that we do not have any private space. And this debate is outside that which one could have about the Interception Modernisation Plan, a plan that has been described by internet service providers as being designed to scoop up ‘anything and everything’. One assumes that such measures are genuinely about national security.

Frankly, it is offensive to think that there were 500,000 warrantless investigations into people’s private communications in 2008. A large percentage of these were not done in the name of counterterrorism, or national security – perfectly acceptable reasons to conduct these measures – but in the name of other forms of enforcement (the official guidance includes trading standards, and environmental health!). In 1961, President Eisenhower gave his farewell speech, which made the term ‘military-industrial-complex’ famous.

“Now this conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved. So is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”

It might be time for someone to have an Eisenhower moment, to reframe that famous speech towards unwarranted interference in the everyday business of the individual.

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