Select Committee on Home Affairs Written Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Mr Charles Farrier

  I am submitting this as an individual. I am an IT professional with 15 years' experience working in software and website development. I work extensively with databases and am aware of the dangers inherent in them.


  1.  The rise in technology combined with a mass media-fuelled climate of fear threatens our way of life. Citizens of the UK are asked to sacrifice privacy for measures that it is not possible to prove the success of. The sudden increase in surveillance technology threatens the citizen's right to privacy and their very way of life. The use of surveillance on law abiding citizens going about their daily business or exercising their democratic right to protest calls into question the health of our democracy. The forthcoming National Identity Register and the government's data sharing agenda will remove existing privacy firewalls. The use of such data for profiling is the stuff of despotism. If surveillance is allowed to increase unchecked then it could have effects on the behaviour of individuals who are anxious not to stand out in the crowd or appear in a bad light in the eyes of the authorities. Stronger safeguards must be put in place, bills before parliament should be subject to privacy impact assessments and our constitution needs to be strengthened to protect the citizen.


  2.  We live in dangerous times, as the rise in technology combined with a mass media-fuelled climate of fear threaten our way of life. The world of performance targets, blame and litigiousness forces officials and decision-makers to "do something", to err on the side of perceived safety. The fear of "not acting" is made to weigh heavy on minds but at what cost?

  3.  As Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter recently put it: "Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue."[108]

  4.  A recently published policy review document released by the government states: "Citizens are asked to accept the gathering of greater levels of information and intelligence in the knowledge that this will facilitate improvements in public safety and law enforcement."[109] Why should citizens accept further intrusion into their private lives when research calls into question the effectiveness of current measures? It is interesting to note that the huge proliferation of CCTV cameras led to just a 5% reduction in crime whilst street lighting led to a 20% reduction.[110]

  5.  Chief amongst the current armoury of so-called safety measures is the use of surveillance technology. A way of intruding into people's lives in the interest of "protecting" them. After all, the axiom "nothing to hide nothing to fear" rules supreme, doesn't it? I will argue that there is very much to fear, particularly if you have nothing to hide.


  6.  Privacy is a difficult concept to define and something that many people seem to take for granted. In the UK privacy is embodied by the system of common law—in which you are free to do anything as long as it is not specifically legislated against. Privacy goes hand in hand with anonymity. Buying a newspaper is not an unlawful act and may be done under anonymity by making a cash transaction in a small newsagent. But consider this simple act in the modern world. The journey to the newsagent filmed on CCTV, the purchase filmed within the shop and the transaction recorded if the purchase is made with a credit or debit card. Why should this be watched and recorded? Now imagine a future world in which this information is added to a central register and the choice of newspaper contributes to a profiling score. Such a vision is not far off with the UK National Identity Register waiting in the wings.[111] What have we become that we feel the need to pry into the lives of law abiding citizens in such a way?


  7.  The start of the 21st century has ushered in a wave of "modernisation" often for the sake of it. Those that do not embrace "modernity" are branded Luddites. Yet many of the changes in surveillance technology are so far reaching that they threaten what it is to be human. For instance, advances in CCTV cameras mean that we will progress from simple stop motion black and white images to high resolution, colour digital images with facial recognition and perhaps soon expressions recognition.[112] Technologies such as expression recognition will intrude into behaviour identity and lead to a robot-like neutral public persona. Technology should be a tool to assist humanity not a weapon with which to enslave it. Advances in technology are big business and there is a whole industry keen to make whatever case necessary to increase sales—governments should be acting on behalf of their citizens not the commercial designs of the high tech industry.

  8.  For an insight into surveillance technology trends and their impact in modern society I draw the committee's attention to the Institute for Prospective Technologies (IPTS) report Security and Privacy for the Citizen in the Post-September 11 Digital Age: A Prospective Overview.[113].


  9.  One of the most worrying trends in recent years has been the photographing and filming of protesters.[114] Our society is supposedly a democracy in which the right to protest is respected. Yet law abiding citizens who choose to go on a demonstration are routinely filmed. The eerie sight of police with handheld equipment recording the presence of protesters embodies a threatening and disapproving state. This is unacceptable in a democracy. What laws allowed this to become routine? What has our society become that the expression of a democratic right is met with such muscle-flexing of the state? What happens when the advances in technology allow the previously shot footage to be matched against the National Identity Register using facial recognition? Will this data be used for profiling? Protesters should be heard but not individually monitored and any existing footage should be destroyed.


  10.  Identity management is a cornerstone in the surveillance state. Through the introduction of a centralised database of all citizens, each allocated a unique identifier (National Identity Register Number, NIRN), the full power of total surveillance is unleashed.

  11.  In the past identifying information such as fingerprints and mugshots has only been stored for convicted criminals but the UK's identity scheme seeks to store such personal and private information on all members of society. The unique identifier will allow information from disparate databases to be combined.


  12.  The indexing of data by the NIRN when combined with the government's forthcoming data sharing agenda[115] will destroy existing privacy firewalls. For instance, assurances that medical data will not be stored on the National Identity Register are meaningless if medical records contain a reference to a citizen's unique identifier. Effectively the National Identity Register will be joined to the NHS spine via the NIRN.

  13.  The government promised a consultation on data sharing and a data sharing bill in the Spring of 2004. Why did they not fulfil this promise? Surely if they have nothing to hide they would have done—surely they have nothing to fear from explaining to UK citizens the full implications of data sharing. Why are they introducing such measures by stealth?

  14.  In addition, the audit trail enshrined in the Identity Card Act will facilitate the creation of dossiers on UK citizens. Each time a card is electronically read it will be possible to record the location in time of that event and so track individuals and their behaviour.


  15.  The collection of information in databases is intrinsically linked with profiling. Roger Clarke of the Australian National University defines profiling as: "a data surveillance technique which is little-understood and ill-documented, but increasingly used. It is a means of generating suspects or prospects from within a large population, and involves inferring a set of characteristics of a particular class of person from past experience, then searching data-holdings for individuals with a close fit to that set of characteristics".[116]

  16.  Allowing computers to categorise citizens in this way is a frightening vision of a future in which every action could increase the likelihood of becoming a suspect. In addition, computers always make mistakes and it will only be a matter of time before such systems lead to wrongful arrests, detentions and imprisonments.

  17.  Profiling is the stuff of despotism. In Nazi Germany the forerunner to modern computers, the Hollerith punch card machine was used to categorise the German population in the census of 1939.[117] This allowed them to conduct the Holocaust in a controlled and systematic way.

  18.  The unwritten constitution of Britain is too weak to protect UK citizens. The power of parliament is supreme and armed with such technology it is not difficult to see a future "elective dictatorship" completing the erosion of civil liberties that has been accelerating so alarmingly in recent years.

  19.  Lord Scarman, the first chairman of the Law Commission warned: "When times are normal and fear is not stalking the land, English law sturdily protects the freedom of the individual and respects human personality. But when times are abnormally alive with fear and prejudice the common law is at a disadvantage: it cannot resist the will, however frightened and prejudiced it may be, of Parliament."[118]


  20.  The advances in surveillance technology will create an electronic Panopticon in which citizens feel that their every move is being recorded and analysed. The effect of this will be to create a society of behavioural uniformity. The law abiding citizen clearly stands to lose the most. As New York Times columnist William Safire put it: "To be watched at all times, especially when doing nothing seriously wrong, is to be afflicted with a creepy feeling. That is what is felt by a convict in an always-lighted cell. It is the pervasive, inescapable feeling of being unfree."[119]


  21.  The government should be protecting privacy not working to destroy it as it currently is. There should be legislation against excessive surveillance. Safeguards should be put in place and sunset clauses for all measures that reduce citizens' freedom. All bills before Parliament should be subject to a privacy impact assessment.

  22.  The constitution needs urgently to be reinforced to create clear limits on what the government can and cannot do. As Christian Parenti put it: "As a society, we want to say: Here you may not go. Here you may not trade and analyze information and build dossiers. There are risks in social anonymity, but the risks of omniscient and omnipotent state and corporate power are far worse."[120]

April 2007

108   Zbigniew Brzezinski-"Terrorized by `War on Terror'-How a Three-Word Mantra Has Undermined America", Washington Post Sunday, March 25, 2007; Page B01 ( Back

109   "Building on progress: Security, crime and justice", HM Government Policy Review, March 2007. Back

110   "To CCTV or not to CCTV?", NACRO, June 2002 ( Back

111   Whilst such proposals are not on the face of the Identity Cards Act, it could be possible through the linking of databases (upon the customer's unique identifier) to data mine in this way. Back

112   See "Urban Surveillance and Panopticism: will we recognize the facial recognition society?" by Mitchell Gray Back

113   Security and Privacy for the Citizen in the Post-September 11 Digital Age: A Prospective Overview, A Report to the European Parliament Committee on Citizens Freedoms and Rights, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE), IPTS July 2003 ( Back

114   See Casualty of War-eight weeks of counter-terrorism in rural England, Liberty, July 2003 ( Back

115   See Information sharing vision statement, HM Government, September 2006 ( Back

116   Profiling: A Hidden Challenge to the Regulation of Data Surveillance by Roger Clarke, Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University, 1995 ( Back

117   See IBM and the Holocaust by Edwin Black, 2002, Time Warner Paperbacks. Back

118   Hamlyn Lectures, English Law-The New Dimension, 1974. Back

119   The Great Unwatched, William Safire, New York Times 18 February 2002. 12 December 2002. Back

120   The Soft Cage-Surveillance in America by Christian Parenti, 2003, Basic Books. Back

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