Stop and Search by Banksy

20 02 2009


Limiting photojournalistic freedom

12 02 2009

On Monday a piece of anti-terror legislation comes into force. Section 76 of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 states that anyone who:

“elicits or attempts to elicit information about an individual who is, or has been a member of Her Majesty’s forces, a member of any of the intelligence services, or a constable, which is of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism, or publishes or communicates any such information” will be committing an offence carrying a maximum jail term of 10 years.

This legislation will prove a useful tool for police wanting to cover up their brutal oppression of legitimate protests and for a government wanting to starve off publicity of dissent. And if used in this way will simply equate to press censorship through the suppression of facts that are contrary to state interests.

Marc Vallée a photojournalist who specialises in protests, writes on Guardian comments:

“you could be arrested for taking and publishing a picture of a police officer if the police think it is “likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism”. Your defence if charged by the crown prosecution service would be to prove that you had a “reasonable excuse” to take the picture in the first place…Documenting political dissent in Britain is under attack and just in time for the political and industrial fall out from the recession…Section 76 will fit in nicely alongside other blunt instruments such as section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which has had a huge impact on photography in a public place.”

This video titled ‘Press Freedom: Collateral Damage’ produced by the National Union of Journalists sheds some light on the kind of tactics already used by the police, without this legislation.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

State-sanctioned PC hacking

7 01 2009

Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as included in the Human Rights Act 1998 states that:

“Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence”

Following a meeting attended by Jacqui Smith between the G6 and United States Counter-Terrorism Symposium in Bonn last year a statement was released telling us that:

“Given the terrorists’ use of modern information technology, countries must take effective counter-measures especially in this area, and make them productive also for intergovernmental cooperation. The interior ministers note that almost all partner countries have or intend to have in the near future national laws allowing access to computer hard drives and other data storage devices located on their territory.”

The Register elaborates on what this could involve:

“Remote searches of computer hard drives. Security services would send emails with Trojan software attached to machines used by suspected terrorists. These would then serve a dual function, sending data from the hacked machine back to police computers, and also acting as key loggers.”

Last Sunday The Times reported that the government has now authorised the use of remote searching to scan hardrives:

“The Home Office has quietly adopted a new plan to allow police across Britain routinely to hack into people’s personal computers without a warrant…

Under the Brussels edict, police across the EU have been given the green light to expand the implementation of a rarely used power involving warrantless intrusive surveillance of private property. The strategy will allow French, German and other EU forces to ask British officers to hack into someone’s UK computer and pass over any material gleaned.

A remote search can be granted if a senior officer says he “believes” that it is “proportionate” and necessary to prevent or detect serious crime — defined as any offence attracting a jail sentence of more than three years.”

In a response to this story covered by The Register:

“A spokesman for the Home Office told the Reg that UK police can already snoop – but these activities are governed by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and the Surveillance Commissioner. He said changes had been proposed at the last Interior Ministers’ meeting, but nothing has happened since.”

A Home Office spokesperson also said that:

“The UK has agreed to a strategic approach towards tackling cyber-crime on the same basis as all Member States – however, the decisions in the Council Conclusions are not legally binding and there are no agreed timescales.

We fully support work to develop an understanding of the scale and impact of electronic crime across the EU and will work with Member States to develop the detail of the proposal.”

So, no mention of civil liberties and as commented on giving the impression that they might eventually be “doing something”.

If technologically plausible, it seems that there are external forces working to invade people’s privacy to enhance international cooperation against criminals. Jacqui Smith, the authoritarian rights busting Home Secretary that she is, being quite willing to comply.  Law is often vague and open to manipulation and I doubt very much that this invasive snooping will be confined to so-called cyber-criminals. Yet another project to add to the ever growing list of state powers.

Insight on Greek rebellion

5 01 2009

From The Real News Network:

On December 6th, 2008, conflict broke out across Athens as youths responded to the killing of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos by the Greek police. Over the following four weeks, protests spread nationwide and the protesters continue to promise further activities, including the announcement of a nationwide day of action on January 9th. The Real News spoke to a freelance journalist in Greece’s second-largest city of Thessaloniki and a resident of Athens’ Exarcheia neighborhood, where many of the clashes between protesters and police have taken place. They provide a glimpse into the various factors that have created such a volatile situation.

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.

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