creepy policemen

Even before I realised that the CCTV camera on the building opposite my flat could be, and indeed had been, swivelled to look directly into my bedroom window, I was never too keen on constant camera observation, and not just because I’m not terrifically photogenic either.

But with the police evidently working hard over the last few months to negotiate for even more access to ever more detailed footage, the issue of CCTV surveillance has taken on a whole new menacing aspect this week.

Firstly, it was announced yesterday that Gordon Brown’s cuddly new authoritarian Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has waived parts of the Data Protection Act to allow the Metropolitan Police to have access to real-time data from London’s congestion charge cameras – giving the police the ability to track all the vehicles which enter or leave the congestion charge zone, live. In an implicit acknowledgement of just how objectionable these new police powers are, the Home Secretary has actually provided Transport for London (the organisation which owns the cameras) with special documentation exempting them from legal action from drivers who might have concerns about the invasion of their privacy (as reported here, eg). As mentioned in this BBC report, the police can currently only ask for vehicle data on a case by case basis: their new powers give them access to all the data from the London cameras in real time.

Interestingly, the BBC reported the Home Office as “stressing” that the police “will only be able to use the data for national security purposes and not to fight ordinary crime.” So could this have meant that the police were finally acknowledging the very thin evidence for the effectiveness CCTV in fighting ordinary crime and striving to find a use for it fighting terrorism instead? Terrorism being, as we all know, a most extraordinary type of crime necessitating the renunciation of a staggering number and variety of the freedoms and liberties enjoyed by civilised society.

Alas, no. Hard on the heels of this outrage came the news today of an accidentally leaked document produced by the Home Office, containing proposals to give police the powers to track drivers throughout the whole of England and Wales via the growing network of cameras equipped with automatic number plate recognition technology, again in real time. The Home Office, in a statement which we can obviously judge for ourselves, has denied that it is showing a disregard for public opinion and civil liberties. Rather, as quoted in the the Guardian, they are claiming that “the police need the data from the cameras, which can read and store every passing numberplate, ‘for all crime fighting purposes’.” Clearly, public concerns would be grossly unfounded, and the civil liberties case laughably overstated.

What the government is doing is showing again not just its obsession with large scale IT projects and the seductive novelty of being able to collect lots of people’s personal data in lots of different databases and link it all up, but, yet again, its sheer thoughtlessness and glib lack of concern about freedom in its dogged belief that its own legislating activity and increased police powers will make us more secure. Far better, although of course it’s only wishful thinking, if they would frankly acknowledge that no government will ever be able to guarantee national security, and firmly assert a total commitment to maintaining our historic and democratic rights and liberties.

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8 thoughts on “creepy policemen

  1. ….and I was going to blog about the D.P.A. :O .. but you’ve beaten me to it! And far more informatively described than I would have done, so thanks for doing this one :-D

    It begins to feel a little like having false confidence in our liberties, when they can be taken from us so easily without so much as a whisper of our permission.

    *is in full support of your outrage*

  2. No, go ahead! The more people talk about this stuff the better, plus i’m sure you could say some interesting things from the IT point of view too.

    And i dunno about permission – half the problem is this amazing national complacency – people are content to assume that the legislation is only for “terrorists” and doesn’t affect the rest of us decent law abiding citizens.

    (The irony is that being “law abiding” becomes an increasingly uncomfortable thing when, for example, merely having in your possession an article like this can get you in trouble with the law.) (Separate issue i know, but just an example of something else that should have caused much more noise than it did.)

  3. As the brother of a “creepy policeman” I often hear stories of frustration about how little the police are actually able to do to help convict real criminals. Loopholes in the law, excessive paperwork, manpower shortages, etc. all play a part. I’m in favour of giving the police all the power and information they can get their hands on. I really don’t care if there is a database somewhere that holds every single detail of my inconsequential life. I don’t go about doing dodgy stuff so if that’s what’s on my public record then that’s fine and dandy with me. Conversely, if some of our shadier citizens have their bad deeds recorded againt them then that is also fine with me. The problem comes, I suppose, when data-entry mistakes are made…

  4. Yeah but your life might not be quite as inconsequential as you think :) If your neighbour took a dislike to some habit of yours, it only takes uncorroborated hearsay for you to be landed with an asbo, for example – your bad deeds really don’t need to be that bad, in order for you to look very dodgy indeed.

    Obviously i don’t really think all policemen are creepy (actually some of my best friends … nah never mind :) ) but waiving our claims to privacy on the assumption that it’s only dodgy people who will be inconvenienced, just encourages the sense that the police &/or the government have the right to watch us in case we do do something wrong. The citizen’s right to privacy is both more fragile and more valuable than any putative right of the state to intrusively collect data and keep us under surveillance – especially when they’re the ones who get to decide if you are “doing something wrong” (as above).

    If it’s really a lack of manpower etc that’s behind the inability to convict criminals, then surely it makes more sense to provide more funding and encourage recruitment, rather than making up new offences and abandoning principles like the right to privacy which have generally been understood to be the hallmarks of a free and open society :-)

  5. If it’s really a lack of manpower etc that’s behind the inability to convict criminals, then surely it makes more sense to provide more funding and encourage recruitment, rather than making up new offences and abandoning principles like the right to privacy

    I expect the latter is the cheaper option :-(

  6. Sadly, that is no doubt true!

    Buuuut, just to continue my rant now that i’ve got started :) this govt has a cheek to think that their own short-term political aims, such as spending money on domes and olympics and suchlike rather than more worthy causes such as these, trump the need for them to know their place as our democratic representatives, *not* dictators, and respect the civil freedoms/rights/liberties which have characterised this country and the civilised world since we ever had a claim to be *called* civilised. Grr, hrmph, multiple exclamation marks.

    oh, and just in the interests of full disclosure (seeing you’re a friend and not a New Labour politician!) i decided that “… married to the relatives of friends of policemen” wasn’t the most convincing way to finish that sentence in my earlier reply :)

  7. I suppose the other side of the coin is that the use of such techniques may go some way to reassuring some members of the public that it is actually safer to venture freely outside, thus restoring some freedoms/rights/liberties to those folk. I have no idea of the figures but it’d be interesting to see how much of a crime deterrent the presence of CCTV cameras are, whether filming or not.

    If the money is instead spent on expanding the police force then how many more police would it take before their vast numbers also start to impinge on civil liberties? And at least with cameras what you see is what actually happened – legions of fuzz handing in notebooks at the end of the day introduces another stage of potential human error as well as involving time-consuming “visual greps” (to use a Rachel-ism :-) ) should any of their observations need referred to.

    As I go about my daily life I don’t actually give the presence of CCTV cameras a moment’s thought (well, until I read your post, anyway) – but if I had one pointing at my bedroom window then maybe I’d change my tune…

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