VINCE CABLE is officially the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, but in recent months has increasingly become known as one of the few politicians who can be relied upon to talk any kind of sense. Here he is on the subject of the surveillance society ...
A quarter of a century has passed since 1984, the titular year of George Orwell’s novel which described a world constantly spied upon by an all-powerful dictator, the fearsome Big Brother. It never happened. Orwell’s nightmarish vision was realised, for a while, in communist Eastern Europe but the Stasi and similar agencies have now gone. And yet in a quiet, insidious way our own democratic society is producing a surveillance state that Big Brother would have been proud to call his own.
Last week my colleague Chris Huhne revealed figures showing that in 2008, public bodies made over half a million requests for communications data. More than 1,500 requests are made every day. When the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act was passed by Parliament a decade ago, only nine bodies – mainly police and intelligence agencies – could use it, mainly to combat terrorism.
Now there are 795, including 500 councils, many of which authorise junior staff to use its powers to pursue people for dog-fouling and other activities that may be antisocial but are a long way short of terrorism.
The Government has become obsessed by hoarding our personal data and tracking our movements. Britain now has the world’s largest DNA database with nearly five million profiles, more than the USA. Many of those on it are criminals but there are more than one million with no criminal record, including 100,000 children. Half a million also have wrong or misspelt names.
Then there are the CCTV cameras. Like DNA samples, they may have a role in fighting crime but there are now about 4.2million, half of which are enforcing speed restrictions.
The eight million criminal-record checks conducted have undoubtedly uncovered some people hiding a criminal identity but they have also wrongly classified 2,700 people as having a criminal conviction. In 5,000 schools, children are required to give fingerprints to use the library. And the king of databases will be the national ID card scheme which, the Government hopes, will eventually hold data for identifying every one of us.
The debate on snooping and surveillance has become blurred and confused. We expect the authorities to snoop on suspected terrorists, not least because gathering intelligence is more effective than rounding up and detaining suspects. We expect the authorities to use their powers to identify illegal immigrants and social-security cheats or council-tax dodgers. We welcome CCTV cameras to keep an eye on drunken yobs in town centres.
But when the same techniques used to trap terrorists are used to enforce council rules on recycling, or litter, or defecating dogs, or to prove that we have encroached on a bus lane or ridden a bicycle on a pavement, there is reason to be queasy about Big Brother.
What makes us particularly uncomfortable is the way the authorities engage in what the Americans call ‘mission creep’. CCTV cameras are justified as a crime measure but then some town-hall bright spark realises that, by changing the camera angle, there is potentially a lot of money to be earned in parking and traffic fines. What starts out as crime prevention gets lost in council finances.
The reasons advanced for the ID card scheme have also kept changing. Ministers have promoted the card to fight terrorism, illegal immigration and retail fraud and also for personal convenience. As soon as one justification proves to be weak or irrelevant, up pops another one.
The Government is unusually keen on collecting more data about us and storing it in centralised databases and making us carry ID cards. Ministers say: 'Why should we worry if we haven’t done anything wrong? Surely we should crack down on all kinds of antisocial behaviour as well as crime and terrorists? Why should inconsiderate motorists, litter louts, fly-tippers and tax dodgers complain if they are caught and fined?’
Some of these arguments have force and we should be careful not to indulge in paranoia. There are, however, several good reasons why we should worry. First, Government incompetence. Two years ago the Inland Revenue lost CDs containing the personal data of 25million people. They have never been found. The Government loses data as carelessly as it loses money, and data can easily end up in the wrong hands.
More than 100,000 people will potentially have access to all our medical records once the proposed NHS database is fully integrated. Some 300,000 people will have access to Contact Point, which will store data on every child in the country. No wonder children’s societies have described it as a honeypot for those with bad intentions towards children. These insecure databases also cost a fortune.
Second, there is a blurring of the line between the innocent and the guilty. Few things have angered my constituents more than the refusal of the police to erase their teenage children’s DNA samples when they have committed no offence. Great harm can result if someone is barred from employment because their name has – wrongly – appeared on a CRB check.
Third, there are civil-liberties concerns. I am sometimes told that only wishy-washy liberals worry about such things. My reply is: Imagine what could happen if we had compulsory ID cards. Police stop you in the street and ask you to produce one. You can’t. It’s lost, or stolen, or at home. They can release you to report to a police station later. But you might be an illegal immigrant or an escaped rapist. So they probably wouldn’t take the chance. You have to be detained until you get a friend or relative to prove you are who you say you are. Fantasy? Maybe. But a frightening one.
Last week I came close to this fantasy. I was driving to my constituency office when a police car flashed me from behind to stop. The officers said they had checked my car registration on an insurance database and I was shown as driving uninsured. I knew there was a mistake since I remembered receiving the certificate and insisted on a check with the insurers.
There was an error on the database. I was driving legally. The officers were courteous to a fault and apologised for the inconvenience. But if I had been a nervous teenager or simply lacking the confidence to insist on a check, there might have been an unhappier turn of events.
Some urgent measures are needed to rein in the surveillance society: we must scrap the ID card scheme; end the retention of innocent people’s DNA; full regulation of CCTV; provide a right to know who is looking at data on us; and insist that courts must authorise intercepts.
Britain is as yet a mercifully free society. But we are in danger of sleep-walking into the kind of society Orwell warned us about.
Well said, that man.
While we're on the subject of Big Brother, here are a few links you might care to follow up ...
... Dr Edgar Whitley from the London School of Economics has produced a short film which warns that in their proposed form, ID cards fail to distinguish the separate tasks of authentication and identification – forcing us to disclose more personal information than necessary in situations where we may need, for example, simply to establish that we are over 18. This would not be necessary, he argues, if the government had taken the opportunity to utilise new technologies, such as our own mobile phones ...
... Politics.co.uk reports that the way Britain undertakes crime scene investigations and the existence of the DNA database have both come under intense scrutiny following the news scientists in Israel have successfully replicated DNA samples ...
... in an article in The Register, David Moss writes "Suppose that there were 60 million UK ID cardholders. To prove that each person is represented by a unique electronic identity on the population register, each biometric would have to be compared with all the rest. That would involve making 1.8 x 1015 comparisons. Suppose further that the false match rate for biometrics based on either facial geometry or fingerprints was one in a million (1 x 10-6). It isn’t. It’s worse than that. But suppose that it was that good, then there would be 1.8 x 109 false matches for IPS to check. It is not feasible for IPS to check 1.8 billion false matches. It is therefore not feasible for these biometrics to do their identification job.
Verification on the other hand is millions of times easier, and requires only that your facial geometry match the photograph recorded on your ID voucher (whether a passport or an ID card or a biometric visa) or that your fingerprints match the templates recorded on the voucher that you proffer to an immigration control officer, for example, or to a bank manager or to a GP, to underpin your transactions and interactions with them.
It may be millions of times easier, but can the biometrics chosen for the NIS achieve even the job of verification?
Apparently not. In 2004, the UK Passport Service (UKPS, now IPS) conducted a biometrics enrolment trial. 10,000 of us took part and a report of the trial was published in May 2005. Under the heading Key Findings (para.1.2), sub-heading Verification Success Rates (para.18.104.22.168), the report says that 31 per cent of people could not have their identity verified using facial recognition technology – they were told that they did not match the photograph of them taken only five minutes before. And that was just the able-bodied participants – for the disabled, the false non-match rate was 52 per cent. And, using flat print fingerprinting technology, 19 per cent of the able-bodied participants could not have their identity verified, and neither could 20 per cent of the disabled."
... Have you noticed how the government keeps changing the reason why we need identity cards?
Azeem Ibrahim has. He writes ...
"In the dark post-9/11 years, they would help us fight terrorism. That petered out; when he was no longer home secretary, Charles Clarke admitted that ID cards would probably not have stopped the 7/7 attacks on London. As fear of terrorism was replaced by fear of identity theft, the justification shifted to the idea that they would help make identity theft harder. Later, controlling immigration was touted. And more recently, the government has argued that having personal details secured in one place would just be more convenient. Last April, Lord West of Spithead told the House of Lords that ID cards 'will provide a single, safe and secure way of protecting personal details and proving identity ... which, I think, will bring convenience.'
ID cards' main purpose is to make life easier for officials. When all the fake arguments are cast to one side, you're left with a mandatory, government-led Facebook account."
... and Chris Williams reports that two people have been successfully prosecuted for refusing to provide authorities with their encryption keys, resulting in landmark convictions that may have carried jail sentences of up to five years. The power to force people to unscramble their data was granted to authorities in October 2007. Between 1 April, 2008 and 31 March this year the first two convictions were obtained.
The disclosure was made by Sir Christopher Rose, the government's Chief Surveillance Commissioner, in his recent annual report. Sir Christopher did not provide details of the crimes being investigated in the case of either individual - neither of whom were necessarily suspects - nor of the sentences they received. In fact, the government doesn't actually know what happened to them - the Crown Prosecution Service said it was unable to track down information on this legal milestone without the defendants' names.
Spot the deliberate mistake?
They propose to collect and keep great swathes of information about each and every one of us, but they can't even find the names of two people they've recently convicted of a crime they invented specifically for the purpose of forcing us to provide the information for them to keep so they can convict us more easily of not being who they think we ought to be.
Still, there's no need to worry. They probably won't remember who we are.
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