suspect nation

from bbc 4: Since Tony Blair’s New Labour government came to power in 1997, the UK civil liberties landscape has changed dramatically. ASBO‘s were introduced by Section 1 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and first used in 1999. The right to remain silent is no longer universal. Our right to privacy, free from interception of communications has been severely curtailed. The ability to travel without surveillance (or those details of our journeys being retained) has disappeared.

Indeed, as Henry Porter (the Observer journalist famous for his recent email clash with Tony Blair over the paring down of civil liberties) reveals in this unsettling film, our movements are being watched, and recorded, more than ever before.

There are already over four million CCTV cameras in Britain (the highest number in Europe) and they are becoming ever more sophisticated. It’s explained that soon every journey in the UK could be monitored thanks to number plate recognition software.

Also, cameras will be able to identify “abnormal” behaviour. For instance, if someone is standing near a cash machine, but not using it, software can alert the CCTV operator. Which is fine until you stop to consider just what suspicious behaviour might entail.

“Perhaps,” as Porter asks, “it’s time for us to start practising our normal behaviour.”

Meanwhile, the multi-billion pound introduction of national identity cards and biometric passports will make it ever harder for us to go anywhere, or buy anything, without leaving an electronic trail of information.

The argument in favour of all this increased surveillance and the reduction of our freedoms is that some sacrifices have to be made in order to protect our wider liberties. Tony Blair frequently states that the modern threats posed by terrorism require increasingly sophisticated techniques to catch those who would attack us.

Another argument, it is often pointed out, is if we aren’t doing anything wrong, and we don’t have anything to hide, we should have nothing to fear from all this legislation.

Porter demolishes this last argument by stating it’s not a question of individuals doing “wrong”, it’s a question of how much we can trust future governments. There is immense potential for future authoritarian regimes to abuse anti-liberty legislation and the huge new supply of information it provides for them. What’s more, as Porter shows, these abuses are already happening now.

The example he gives is in the USA where FBI ‘no fly’ lists, supposedly to stop terrorists getting in planes, were briefly (before the American Civil Liberties Union took the issue to court) extended to include those opposed to government policy. People stopped at airports because of this list included Senator Edward Kennedy, and the two ageing female editors of an anti-war magazine.

Porter also blasts the argument about terrorism. First, backed up by the former US Presidential candidate Al Gore, the film describes how counter-productive all this directionless information gathering can be. In making suspects of us all, our governments are actually making it harder for security forces to target the real trouble-makers.

“We’re looking for needles in haystacks and the Bush Cheney administration keeps piling more hay on top of the stacks,” explains Gore.

Secondly, in a triumphant piece of investigative reporting, Porter demonstrates that the new tools that are supposed to fight terrorism could actually make life easier for those that want to hide their true identity. He meets a security expert who demonstrates just how easy it is to crack into the signals given off from CCTV cameras and by downloading their footage could gain crucial security information from the people they follow (for instance the cameras can be used to work out security protocols inside buildings).

Meanwhile, the chips that will go into ID cards and into our passports contain information that can easily be obtained, and potentially duplicated, by outside sources. Porter argues that in the not too distant future terrorists will be able to furnish themselves with the perfect alibi and hiding place. They will be able to take the data from the chips we will all be required to carry, and become us.

As Porter asks: “Is this really what we want for ourselves?”

Channel 4 links
How Secure is the Net?
Counter-Terror: Fact or Fiction
Science of Secrecy

External related links
Comment is free – Henry Porter’s blog on ‘The Guardian’s’ site.
Liberty – One of the UK’s leading human rights and civil liberties organisations.
The Home Office – With info on crime, security, passports and immigration, anti-social behaviour, justice and prisons.
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

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