Monday, April 02, 2012

Britain to increase data surveillance powers

Britain is set to continue further down the road of a 'Big Brother' state with a new law that sets out to monitor all Internet and telecommunications traffic.

The proposals have been likened to the surveillance imposed on the citizens of China and Iran and a direct infringement of people's privacy. However, lawmakers insist the measures are necessary in order to counter an increasing terror threat.


Under the plans, which are likely to be laid before parliament in the next session, phone calls, e-mails, text messages and website visits of everyone in the UK will be monitored. Internet companies will be instructed to install hardware enabling GCHQ to carry out these tasks and monitor data flow in real time, according to a report in the Sunday Times, though details have not been officially confirmed.

Reports suggest that GCHQ would not be able to access the content of communications without a warrant, but the legislation would enable the intelligence monitoring agency to trace the connections between individuals or groups, as well as logging times and dates.

Internet Service Providers [ISPs] will be asked to keep records of all e-mails, messages on social networking sites and conversations over Skype or other VoIP services. The content of the calls or messages will be recorded, according to reports, but the authorities will have to obtain a court order if they want to listen to or read the content.

Growing surveillance

However some are sceptical that such rules will be applied or adhered to. Critics argue that surveillance technology has often been installed in the past with the stated goal of preventing crime or terrorism but moved on to catch petty offenders or target soft targets such as motorists.

Britain is one of the most intrusive nations in the West when it comes to surveillance. There are an estimated 4.2 million CCTV cameras in the country, though the true figure may be much higher. CCTV [Closed Circuit Television] cameras are installed in every town and city in the UK. In some places there are around 4 authority owned cameras per 1,000 people [BBC], however on average there is one CCTV camera for every 32 people [Guardian]. 

In addition there are a growing number of ANPR [Automatic Number Plate Recognition] cameras being used to monitor traffic, regulate tolls, parking enforcement, London's Congestion and Low Emission Zone, as well as security purposes.

The London Congestion Charge scheme uses two hundred and thirty cameras and ANPR to help monitor vehicles in the charging zone, but since the Low Emission Zone was established the number of ANPR cameras has increased significantly with cameras installed along key routes in and out of the entire London region.

Integrated CCTV network

Since March 2006, most motorways, main roads, town centres, London's Congestion Charge zone, ports and petrol stations forecourts have been covered by CCTV camera networks using automatic number plate recognition. Existing traffic cameras in towns and cities are being converted to read number plates automatically as part of the new national surveillance network.

"What we're trying to do, as far as we can, is to stitch together the existing camera network rather than install a huge number of new cameras," Frank Whiteley, the Chief Constable of Hertfordshire and chairman of the ANPR steering committee, is quoted to have said in December 2005 [Independent].

The intention eventually was to move from the "low thousands" of cameras to the "high thousands" which would feed the data generated to The National ANPR Data Centre.

Some cameras may be disguised for covert operations but the majority will be ordinary CCTV traffic cameras converted to read number plates. Every police force also has a fleet of specially fitted police vans with ANPR cameras. In addition local councils operate specially adapted vehicles to catch unsuspecting motorists flouting traffic and parking regulations.

Central database

The National ANPR Data Centre stores all ANPR data feeds from the various police and civic CCTV networks in the UK. Based at Hendon in north London, the site of the existing Police National Computer, The National ANPR Data Centre logs more than 100 million reads per day along with the time, date and place of each vehicle sighted. This data is kept for two years allowing authorities to sift through the data retrospectively should the need arise, though searches over a year require a Superintendent's authority and must be for Counter Terrorism only.

But ANPR use has been criticised for pushing the boundaries of surveillance after it was revealed that the police misled councillors in Birmingham after attempting to install cameras in Muslim neighbourhoods, as part of the now-abandoned Project Champion [Guardian]. ANPR cameras have also been used repeatedly to stop people who have committed no crime but whose number-plates have been spotted at protests [Guardian].

With such instances of authorities moving the goalposts, privacy advocates and civil rights campaigners have warned that the 'Big Brother' state is widening its net and becoming more intrusive.

Tracking individuals

The technology to track an individual's movements has now extended beyond vehicles. Ipsotek's Tag and Track software now enables the tracking of individuals by simply tagging each person on CCTV feeds or recorded footage. The system allows the tracking of everyone who enters the CCTV network, building a profile of every object in its sights [Reuters - video].

Geo-location has already been employed by some law enforcement agencies to track the whereabouts of individuals by the use of mobile phone triangulation and GPS logging.

In one high profile case the German politician Malte Spitz managed to obtain six months' worth of data from Germany's largest telecommunication company Deutsche Telekom which showed that his movements had been stored. He forwarded the information to Zeit Online, a German newspaper, which used the information to create a detailed tracking profile.

If registered, even the smartcards used on public transport systems might be used to track the movements of individuals [BBC]. Even those not registered could be tracked, though other data would be needed and cross-referenced in order to apply a name to a specific individual.

But with both private agencies, local authorities and travel networks being encouraged or obliged to hand over or make their data available to law enforcement, privacy is being slowly eroded.

Internet surveillance

First revealed in February this year [RT] the new surveillance plans will make it extremely difficult for any individual to avoid the prying eyes of the state.

"This is an unprecedented step that will see Britain adopt the same kind of surveillance seen in China and Iran,"  Nick Pickles, director of the Big Brother Watch campaign group, said.

"This is an absolute attack on privacy online and it is far from clear this will actually improve public safety, while adding significant costs to Internet businesses," Pickles said, "If this was such a serious security issue why has the Home Office not ensured these powers were in place before the Olympics?"

Shami Chakrabarti, director of the civil rights group Liberty, questioned the apparent U-turn given that both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats had resisted the plan when they were in opposition. "There is an element of whoever you vote for the empire strikes back," she told Sky News's Murnaghan programme.

"Unnecessary extension"

But there has been some opposition to the proposals from those in government. Conservative MP David Davis called the move "an unnecessary extension of the ability of the state to snoop on ordinary people". Davis has been a long running advocate of civil liberties and resigned his position as MP and Shadow Home Secretary in 2008 in order to to provoke wider public debate about the erosion of civil liberties. Davis's resignation followed a parliamentary vote on the Counter-Terrorism Bill, which would extend the maximum detention of terror suspects without charge from 28 to 42 days.

"What this is talking about doing is not focusing on terrorists or criminals, it's absolutely everybody's emails, phone calls, web access..." he told the BBC. "All that's got to be recorded for two years and the government will be able to get at it with no by your leave from anybody."

While this bill is being justified with the threat of terrorism, there are already existing laws which force Internet providers log information in order to counter copyright infringement. In 2010 the then Labour government forced through the 2010 Digital Economy Act which established a system of law which aims to increase the ease of tracking down and suing persistent copyright infringers [tvnewswatch: Anger as MPs pass digital bill].

The latest bill appear to be a build on proposals revealed in 2008 which outlined the setting up of a phone call data base [BBC].

Even if the latest move at monitoring telecommunications traffic is announced in the Queen's Speech, any new law would still have to make it through Parliament, potentially in the face of opposition in both the Commons and the Lords. However, while the House of Lords has the power to reject Bills, except Money Bills (tax bills), and make the House of Commons reconsider them, the House of Lords may only veto a bill twice or delay a public Bill for more than one year after which the House of Commons can force the Bill through under the terms of the Parliament Acts.

DNA, facial recognition & audio CCTV

With a growing DNA and fingerprint database and an increasingly intrusive surveillance system being implemented, there will soon be nowhere to hide from the prying eyes of the state machine.

Advocates argue that law abiding citizens have little to fear. But simple changes in the law can easily turn once law abiding individuals into criminals. The Low Emission Zone has forced hundreds of motorists off the road, making them comply with expensive vehicle upgrades or face excessive fines should they be caught by a growing network of ANPR cameras.

Facial recognition is already being employed in the US to identify individuals from stored images and could be used to identify those flouting no smoking rules for example [WTVR].

So far such technology has only been used to apprehend those associated with serious crime [Daily Mail] but there are fears that the same methods could be used to identify people guilty of minor misdemeanours.

The widespread introduction of audio recording being added to CCTV surveillance will further erode civil liberties to the point where nothing can be said or done without being monitored by the state [Register]. In Oxford taxi drivers have opposed moves by the local council to have such equipment installed in their vehicles [ITV]. After protests from taxi drivers and the backing of the Information Commissioner's Office [ICO], the plans have been put on hold until a review is held [Oxford Mail].

Surveillance state

Such methods of surveillance were until recently confined to the likes of China. The so-called Great Firewall of China monitors traffic and blocks information deemed sensitive or seen as contrary to maintaining a 'harmonious society'. Established with technology initially supplied by western technology companies, the surveillance methods have also enabled Chinese authorities to move against individuals seen as subversive. Now, the same methods are likely to be employed in Britain and other countries in the west under the pretext of counter-terrorism and anti-criminal measures.

Further reading: BBC / Sky / Guardian / Telegraph / Independent / Daily Mail 

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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Barbara Lee said...
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