Surveillance, Privacy and Liberty

Britain has been known for some time to be decidedly interested in surveillance, in the name of security. It’s an oft-quoted comment that Britain is a ‘surveillance society’. That said, in part because of technology, and the ‘war on terrorism’, there seems to have been a noticeable shift in the amount of surveillance, and how it is being used – both by the government and private organisations.

Clearly there is some good to come of the 4.2 million CCTV cameras in Britain – I was astounded at the speed which the London bombers of July 2005 were traced. It wasn’t long after the event that the bombers had been traced back across London, to the place they had boarded a train, no doubt speeding the investigation.

Some people clearly have concerns about how the technology is used, however.

More than just the increasing use of cameras for passive monitoring, there are much more active techniques for observing people and taking action. Under a new police initiative, cameras will use automatic numberplate recognition to check for ‘vehicles of interest’, following which motorists will have their fingerprints checked against the Police National Computer. The stated aim is to ensure identies can easily be verified at the roadside, to avoid people giving false details. Fingerprints are stored in this computer system when people are charged with a crime – though clearly it would be much easier if everyone’s details were stored, rather than existing criminals. The police also suggest the technology could be extended for real-time searching of the “Facial Images National Database”.

One presumes these fingerprints might come from the biometrics gathered for identity cards, our nice, ‘secure‘ e-passports or the IRIS airport scanning system.

It seems to be a significant shift that’s occurred recently where it’s freely admitted by many of the involved organisations that this sort of data will be gathered on everyone, rather than those guilty of a crime. When automatic facial or numberplate recognition, or even behaviour patterns, are used to monitor potential criminals rather than those guilty of something, even those who suggest ‘if you’re not guilty you’ve nothing to hide‘ might start to worry.

As evidence that there is increasing acceptance of surveillance, I noticed barely a raised eyebrow when mentioning the Pay-as-you-Drive car insurance promotion by Norwich Union to people, wherein you are given a GPS tracking device and billed according to your driving pattern and risk profile. Given they know where you’re going and how fast you’re moving – might they report to anyone (or just adjust your premiums) if you’re speeding?