Monday, 27 August 2012


George Orwell’s 1984 described a society where surveillance was omnipresent. The inhabitants of Oceania lived in apartments equipped with two-way telescreens, so that they could be watched or listened to at any time. Similar telescreens were found at workstations and in public places, along with hidden microphones. Written correspondence was routinely opened and read by the government before it was delivered.
It is ironic beyond irony that some twenty-eight years after 1984 the United Kingdom had become one of the World’s most advanced and sophisticated versions of the surveillance society described by Orwell. Unlike in the novel 1984 the U.K. surveillance society did not come into existence on account of war or a military coup. It is instead a product of crime fighting initiatives and legislation put in place over the last three decades, often with the best of intentions.
In the year 1984 commentators were celebrating that Orwell’s dystopian future had indeed not come to pass with the exception of a few Closed Circuit Television systems . In the subsequent decade, however, the use of CCTV systems rapidly expanded. They were deemed successful in a government report "CCTV: Looking Out For You", issued by the U.K. Home Office in 1994. Prime Minister John Major states: "I have no doubt we will hear some protest about a threat to civil liberties. Well, I have no sympathy whatsoever for so-called liberties of that kind." The Report paved the way for a massive increase in the number of CCTV systems installed with, the Home Office spends a total of 38 million pounds of CCTV schemes in the next four years.
Today, the CCTV systems cover most town and city centres and many stations, car-parks and estates. It is estimated that Britain is home to 20% of the world’s population of CCTV cameras, despite having just 1% of the world’s population. One study claims that there is an incredible one CCTV camera for every 32 citizens. Another study suggests that the average Londoner is caught on camera more than 300 times every day. The revelation that almost two million cameras are watching people’s every move confirms the shocking extent of surveillance.
The U.K’s ubiquitous Home Office now has a brand new surveillance tool at hand. Spies in the sky: spy drones that can be used for surveillance. In other words, drones that might raise unique privacy concerns because of their ability to gather information from superior vantage points; for example, by hovering outside a person’s bedroom window. Already a number of civil liberties groups have concluded that watchful eyes in the sky will inevitably be privy to intimate details concerning the private lives of everyday Britons.
In Orwell’s Oceania written correspondence was opened and read by the government before it was delivered. Orwell did not foresee the communication technology that developed in the half century following the publication of 1984. Nobody writes letters anymore. People communicate on the internet. Fittingly in Spring of 2012 the British government introduced the Communications Data Bill into Parliament. This legislation will give police, intelligence agencies and HM Revenue and Customs officials access to data about web communications made by UK citizens. The idea is for the authorities to be able to build up an intelligence picture of who is talking to whom, when, and where in the UK. In the bill itself, 'communications data' is defined as "traffic data, use data or subscriber data". 'Traffic data' is information used to transmit the communication, including the address on an envelope or the location of a phone; 'use data' relates to itemized records of connections to internet services, and phone records, while 'Subscriber information' includes names and addresses. The CDB gives the Home Secretary power to order all network telecommunications providers — potentially all businesses and organizations, not just businesses like Google and Facebook — to retain data on web communications. In effect, any organization could be ordered to collect information about communications made using webmail, internet telephony, or instant messaging over its networks and to retain it for 12 months.
The Communications Data Bill allows the Home Secretary the blanket power to retain data on every citizen for an undefined purpose. It won’t require judicial approval – but potentially every text message, every Facebook message, every phone call, every email from everyone in Britain would be stored on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government. If the Bill passes, companies will have to collect data they don’t currently collect and the Home Secretary will be able to ask manufacturers of communications equipment to install hardware such as ‘black boxes’ on their products to make spying easier. This proposed scale of state surveillance will add the UK to the ranks of countries such as Kazakhstan, China and Iran. This total population monitoring would break the fundamental principle that a judge and court order is required before the state invades the privacy of its citizens by holding their personal data.
The Communications Data Bill is not dissimilar from legislative initiatives that popped up in Canada and the U.S. in 2012. The state’s broad surveillance powers in the U.K., however, must be considered in the context of a various acts which create a set of social controls. There is a tangled web of legislation which criminalizes various communications whether made by old media means or new media means. There is the Malicious Communications Act 1998. Under section 1 of this Act it is an offence to send an indecent, offensive or threatening letter, electronic communication or other article to another person. In section 85 of the Postal Services Act 2000 and section127 of the Communications Act 2003 there are similar specific offences relating to sending postal or telephone messages which are indecent offensive or threatening.
There is s. 127 of the Communications Act 2003 which says a person is guilty of an offence if, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another by means of a public electronic communications network, sends a message that he/she knows to be false and is guilty of an offence if he/she sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character. This second provision is unique in the sense that the offence is committed upon the act of communication and a person would be committing the offence even in the event that the communication was not received by the intended recipient or was intercepted prior to anyone actually taking offence to the subject matter. Thusly two people engaging in a private, back and forth internet conversation making grossly offensive comments about the Queen would be guilty of an offense. 
Next there are Britain’s infamous ASBOs introduced by the Crime and Disorder Act(replaced by the Anti-social Behaviour Act in 2003). ASBO stands for Anti-Social Behavior Orders (if this isn’t Orwellian, what is!).
Anti-social behaviour includes a range of so-called problems such as abandoning cars, begging, defecating/urinating in public, drug dealing/consumption of controlled recreational drugs, dogging (theatrical public sex), drunken behaviour, fare evasion, intimidation, littering/fly tipping/dog fouling, loitering, noise pollution, racism, spitting, stealing/mugging/shoplifting, urban exploration and vandalism/criminal damage.
Out of office the Conservatives and Liberal-Democrats were often opponents of the so-called anti-social legislation but in office they are continuing the drift towards an Orwellian society. There is proposed new legislation which will include a Crime Prevention Injunction (CPI). The CPI is designed to intervene early, will be faster and easier to get than an ASBO, will contain the same sorts of prohibitions but also positive requirements, such as undergoing treatment for drugs. Breaching it will be a civil rather than a criminal offence, though a stretch in prison can result. There will also be the Criminal Behaviour Order (CBO) is for so-called hard-core troublemakers who also dabble in outright crime. Like the CPI, it can contain a mixture of restrictions and requirements. Violating it is to be a criminal offence.
The new measures will undoubtedly focus police minds on anti-social behaviour in a way that nothing yet has quite done. CBOs perpetuate the ASBO trick of creating under civil law a criminal offence applicable to one person. "It strikes me as a risky strategy to abandon the principle of equality before the criminal law and invent tailor-made offences in this way," says Mike Hough of Birkbeck College London. Isabella Sankey of Liberty, a pressure group, fears the CPI could be worse than the ASBO, as the standard of proof will be lower and the test of anti-social behaviour broader.
Then there is Section 5 of the U.K.’s Public Order Act which makes it an offence if a person uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby. The Daily Mail has listed some of egregious charges that have been made under Section 5. Oxford University student Sam Brown celebrating the end of exams asks a policeman "Excuse me, do you know your horse is gay?" He was arrested under Section 5 for making offensive, homophobic comments, fined (at least the police tried to fine him) 80 pounds and locked up for the night. A 16 year old who said "woof" to a Labrador within earshot of police was arrested and fined 200 pounds. The decision was overturned by a jury. A 16 year old was charged under Section 5 for demonstrating with a sign that read "Scientology is a Dangerous Cult". Members of a gay group were arrested for protesting against a fundamentalist Islamic gathering because the group’s placards claimed that the Islamists incited the murder of gays. A Christian street preacher was arrested for telling a passerby that homosexuality was sinful.
The U.K. has created step-by-step a framework for oppression. On the one hand there is overreaching surveillance; on the other, there is all sorts of "surveyed" behavior which is now illegal. The legislative initiatives occurred under both Conservative and Labour regimes (although they got an extra impetus from the Fascistic Blunkett) with the omnipotent Home Office always lurking in the background. The U.K. however is not alone in this respect. The same kind of framework has been developing in other countries including Canada, Australia and the U.S. It is being bequeathed to us by the Right as part of law and order, anti-subversive and pro-morality agendas; by a Left which loves "victims" and want to prohibit "hurts" and by the Centre which is obsessed with politeness and civility.
There is a broad movement in the U.K. to remove the words "insulting" from Section 5 of the Public Order Act. There is also a developing backlash in the U.K. (as in Canada and the U.S.) to sweeping internet surveillance provisions. Hopefully the counter movement will succeed. If it doesn’t the long-term danger is that the soft or velvet authoritarianism that we have today can easily replaced by a hard authoritarianism.


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