Surveillance Society

22 June 2008

We are steadily moving towards the surveillance society. Where our every action is recorded, and analysed and may be used against us. Just as George Orwell predicted.

In the UK level of surveillance is about to vastly increase by the removal of small but key parts of the processes. The Home Office is proposing having a central database, fed by probes located in the comms networks to replace the current system of requesting Communications Data from the ISP / Telco.

At the moment this informations is available to the police and a long list of other agencies but they need to request it from the operators. The operators in turn have a responsibility to ensure that the requests are fair and reasonable, and that the information provided is accurate. At the moment a request has to be for the communications activity of an individually identified person. That can be identified by a name, an IP address, a Phone number etc.

They cannot make non targeted requests. Of course they can make multiple requests in a single investigation. Who did this person call, then in turn the traffic of all of those in turn etc. Then there is the requirement under RIPA that the communications providers make sure that the requests are properly authorised and reasonable. So there is someone looking at these requests who is not employed by the government who can refer to the Interception Commissioner if they feel the requests are unreasonable.

Despite huge deployments of CCTV there is little evidence that they help deter crime. The Home Office’s own reports say the street lighting is more effective in reducing crime that CCTV.

Bill Thompson commented on this in his blog on the BBC technology pages.

The spaces within which we can live unobserved are constantly diminishing, as both public and private sector agencies link their databases together or co-operate to ensure that nothing we do goes unremarked.

We need a space for experimentation, where we can test the limits of old laws and explore how they might be altered in future, but once ISPs decide that they are no longer neutral carriers of bits and choose to ally themselves with the content industry then we lose another sliver of freedom.

I am concerned with the society we are building, where parents monitor their children’s, internet activity, track them to and from school. Where employers do the same to their staff, and where the government monitors its citizens in the name of preventing terrorism, but in fact use the systems to detect benefit fraud.