Fading freedom in the British police state.

17 12 2008

The Take

Our state hates the idea of individual liberty. As the years of the Labour government have progressed we have seen the steady deployment of various technological tools that surveill the people. The following is a list of some already implemented and proposed laws and projects that strengthen the power of the state, take freedom and impose on the individual’s right to privacy.

Terrorism Act 2006 (imposed a 28 day limit on detention without charge).

Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 (allows the police to stop and search anyone in a specific area).

Civil Contingencies Act 2004 (gives Cabinet ministers sweeping powers in designated emergencies including quarantine areas, restricting travel, handing control of essential industries to the army).

Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (restricts the right to demonstrate within an exclusion zone of up to one kilometre from any point in Parliament Square).

Identity Card Act 2006 (proposed 2010 implementation of ID cards for airport workers and nationwide in 2011).

Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (allows the government to access a person’s electronic communications).

● Coroners and Justice Bill (proposed, will remove existing legal barriers to data sharing).

Communications Data Bill (postponed, will monitor web comms using Internet Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), as well as telephone calls).

● DNA database (5.3 million profiles, many not convicted, although just denounced as unlawful by the European court of human rights).

● NHS central medical records database called Secondary Uses Service (SUS).

ContactPoint National child database (proposed directory that will hold information on all children under 18).

4 million CCTV cameras.

Automatic Number Plate Recognition CCTV cameras linked to police national computer.

● Spy drones (have been used in Merseyside, Liverpool and at V festival).

Mobile fingerprint and face recognition scanners (proposed use within 18 months).

Fingerprinting students from outside Europe (proposed to start in autumn 2009).

10,000 Taser stun guns available to police officers across England and Wales (BBC link).

Metropolitan Police’s Form 696 (proposed, requires venues and club managers in London to report to the police the names, addresses, aliases and telephone numbers of artists).

These tools of privacy invasion and “terrorism” evasion are trampling all over rights hard-won, often at the expensive of freedom and life (by people like John Lilburne, John Wilkes, Tom Paine, John Stuart Mill and Ernest Jones), from tyrannous monarchs and governments over hundreds of years. For anyone who values a life free from state monitoring and interference, these projects are an act of complete contempt. But what motivates the government into implementing them and what do they mean for the distribution of political power in our so-called democracy?

Enshrined in law

We first have to look at why in any democratic country an individual would have his or her liberty taken away from them for legitimate reasons. Above all, individuals should be protected from arbitrary state power through habeas corpus, which states that:

“No free man shall be arrested, or imprisoned, or deprived of his property, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed, nor shall we go against him or send against him, unless by legal judgement of his peers, or by the law of the land.”

So, if a court judges, beyond reasonable doubt, that a person has broken the law they can be imprisoned for a specified amount of time. Property aside, the most legitimate reason for someone to be imprisoned would be through the encroachment on an individual’s right to be free from violence and murder. The state is seen as having the responsibility to protect its citizens from such acts and this is widely accepted. However, as terrorist acts have been perpetrated and the perceived threat of terrorism has grown, the government has created new laws that give itself more powers to detain and monitor the citizenry. The justification of these laws has been that terrorism and crime in the twenty first century has evolved and its prevention outweighs the individual’s right to liberty. In the words of Tony Blair:

“Ultimately, for me this whole issue is not about whether we care about civil liberties, but how we care for them in the modern world. If the traditional processes were the answer to these crime and law and order problems…then we wouldn’t be having this debate. But they’re not. They’ve failed. They are leaving the innocent unprotected and the guilty unpunished. That’s why we need them changed.” (1)

Of course, surveillance might reduce crime (although evidence points to the contrary) but it comes at cost, in trading freedom for security, the state is completely upsetting the balance between crime prevention and civil liberty. It’s a response characteristic across much of government’s policy making, they attempt to command and control instead of tackling the roots of social and environmental problems. Crime results from a huge complex of social factors and the policy of punishment has just not worked, prisons are overflowing. Twenty first century terrorism has emerged in response to US and British support for Israel and general endeavours for military dominance in the Middle East. These laws and databases are another attempt to control our behaviour instead of concentrating on the causes of these behaviours in the first place and the entire population is paying the price.

Media and the minority for the majority

We are in a situation in which Britain has the weakest possible form of democracy, representative in nature and where the electorate has entrusted the political elite to serve in its interests. With this mandated power the state is using its authority to create a sophisticated and wide ranging system that will act as a window into our lives. You would think that the citizenry would overwhelmingly oppose such authoritarian advances, until now confined to our imaginations through the pages of dystopian (a term in fact first used is this context by John Stuart Mill) novels.

If polls are anything to go by. On the issue of identity cards, two have been carried out. One by the Home Office that found 60% of people were in favour of the scheme and one by the ICM that found 50% of people against (2). The differing results possibly arising from the kind of questions being asked in each poll. Still, there is by no means a majority opposing the scheme, this is worrying, why would people willingly give up their freedom and privacy?

If we turn to the media there is a mixed picture. It’s apparent that tabloids and broads alike have been quite critical of the identity card project. This has been combined with considerable attention on the broader civil liberty issues of privacy and mass surveillance, although by no means widespread. Covered on the right by Philip Johnston and on the left by Henry Porter, in addition to a number of reports, documentaries and inquiries.

Despite this coverage, the media has used crime and terror ‘infotainment’ to sell papers and in turn generate an up welling of fear and distrust. Creating a culture in which people perceive crime and terrorism as a greater threat to their safety than it in reality does (3). This would motivate a want for expanded state powers to create a feeling of security. Papers not only shape thoughts, they also have an enormous influence on government policy. Instead of using credible research the focus is on policy that responds to headlines and uses spin tactics to manipulate public opinion (3). Undermining the democratic function the media should be performing.

It’s worth wondering, do you reform the system or shift to a new set of political structures? Is the state of liberty in Britain linked to a general depoliticisation of the nation and the spread of apathy?

Disinterest in the political system fuels a situation in which people, distracted by consumerism, don’t want to participate in making decisions that affect their lives. Or if they do want to make decisions for themselves they are disempowered and can’t voice their opinions other than in governmental consultations that are nothing more than token gestures. Further, the centralised bureaucracy that is the state, in essence, provides an infrastructure that allows for the effortless concentration and sharing of information and data. In a participatory political system, these departments of control would not have to exist to such a large scale, with citizens making direct decisions (through local meetings or even the internet). If people are not directly involved in decision-making, protest is often a frequently sought means to show dissatisfaction. But when these do occur, they are often small, rare and of course repressed.

Stifling discontent

Athens, the birthplace of democracy, was recently in the crux of a civil crisis and the streets were alive with discontent. The unjust shooting of Alexandros Grigoropoulos was a catalyst, people were sick of a government that had paid them little attention. This outburst of energy was a visual, although somewhat violent, display through which the Greek youth empowered themselves. While the streets have been buzzing with rage, the only means the Greek police have had to control the situation has been through repression/brutality on the front lines.

Imagine a similar situation in Britain – but it’s 2025 and the state has increasingly become more and more authoritarian to the point that the general election has almost lost all meaning. There is an established network of face recognition and Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) CCTV cameras. Communications are meticulously monitored. Various databases provide details on individual’s political views. ID cards contain radio-frequency identification chips that are read by ubiquitous scanners around urban areas and it is illegal to protest in city centres. People are angry and want to make the state take notice and relinquish power. A mass demonstration is organised to take place in London.

The ANPR will allow the tracking of protester’s vehicles, allowing police to intercept or harass them. ID cards will be needed to gain access to public transport and profiling will restrict access. Face recognition cameras will identify people in the streets and allow their subsequent arrest. And, who knows how else the surveillance system could be adapted to varying police demands? The Identity Card Act itself does not restrict the functional scope of the project, which could be much greater than that originally publicised by the government. The powers of the state could extend far beyond the front lines and repression and exclusion would embed deeply into the fabric of society.

Her Majesty’s National Prison

A ‘maximum security society’ is just not acceptable for the functioning of any kind of democracy. I have argued that this consolidation of power is yet another symptom of the type of political system we use in this country. But we cannot forget other arenas of political and social consequence that would form in this liberty devoid Britain – discrimination – choice and consent – anonymity – boundaries between commercial, public and state databases – identity errors – stolen private data – financial cost – trust.

What is at our immediate disposal to counteract this assault on freedom and begin breaking down the walls of this national prison? The internet is a medium bustling with news articles, critical blogs, essays and reports on the taking of liberty that can raise awareness on the issues. And fundamentally, it circumvents the distortions of reality found in the media. Mass civil disobedience on identity cards would be an extremely powerful act and even some MP’s have already claimed they will not bow to state coercion on the matter. Expression through protests could elevate public consciousness and possibly influence the government. Surveillance Impact Assessments (SIA), have been proposed by The Surveillance Studies Network as a legislative means to examine any adverse effects a law or project would have on individual privacy and society as a whole. If it’s orientation we seek, ‘The Convention on Modern Liberty‘ scheduled for 28th February will provide the opportunity to hear various politicians, lawyers, journalists and scientists discuss the threats to our fundamental rights and freedoms. Furthermore, I believe the potential power for real change in government policy on this issue comes from the fact that it transcends the political ideologies of left and right.

1). Henry Porter, Tony Blair exchange http://www.henry-porter.com/Articles/Britain-s-liberties-The-great-debate.html

2). ID Card poll http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2008/feb/06/politics.idcards.

3). Why are fear and distrust spiralling in 21st century Britain? (Joseph Rowntree Foundation) http://www.jrf.org.uk/knowledge/findings/socialpolicy/pdf/2282.pdf




3 responses

22 12 2008

Thanks for linking to the Convention, dsdnt, in this very interesting post. On public opinion, the latest polling suggests that when people are given the facts in a straightforward way, without leading questions about terrorism etc, they oppose what the government is doing. See eg this latest poll from NO2ID which finds 2 to 1 against the database state:

The more people know the less they like it. Hopefully the Convention will be able to get the message out there.

23 12 2008
Harry East

It is time we revisited the original concept of democracy:

Government of the people: Degfinitely

Government by the people: A laughable concept in modern Britain

Government: Not a chance

Part of the problem is that people are locked into the idea of voting for a political party. It is far past the time when we should have returned to the old “parish pump” principle of being represented by a well respected member of the local community not some individual imposed from outside by a party with an agenda that does not contain much in the way of respect for the voter. In modern Britain the voter is seen by politicians merely as an X on a piece of paper and a wide open pocket to be plundered at will. But, sadly, it would appear that the British populace have become a flock of sheep willing to be herded in any direction that suits the party in power. Until that changes nothing else will.

1 01 2009
Tom Eastwood

Harry East (02:18:03) you say two thingsd 1) “Government by the people: A laughable concept in modern Britain” Why not Harry, they do this in Switzerland. Officials cannot spend any or the people’s money without their say so. Whereis here we have elderly vulneable pensioners who have paid tax and national insurance all their lives deprived of basic services like Meals on Wheels and alift to the day centre where they can meet someone to stop the awful emdemic lonelyness of millions of English pensioners being forced to pay beyond their ability for these services by councils who pay their Chief Excecutive (used to be called the Clerk) £200,000. This is imoral. So Government by the people for the people – Absolutely.

2) “sadly, it would appear that the British populace have become a flock of sheep willing to be herded” Harry how would you really know? Where are they allowed to speak? on the BBC ? lol IN the national newspapers? lol. They are allowed on radio talk shows where they express worry and concerns about life in this country. So please don’t discount them. The most popular book of all time, The Lord of the RIngs real hero is Sam Wisegangee who is based on the batmen Tolkein encountered during the war. Tolkein said that at that time there was very little communication between the classes (rather like now really) and that he was so impressed with the batmen who served the officers who came from places like the East End of London.

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