Surveillance: Citizens and the State - Constitution Committee Contents

Memorandum by Martin Twomey, Hackney and Shoreditch NO2ID Group

  When a recent conversation turned to the creeping surveillance society and identity cards the person I was speaking to told me about his elderly parents' recollections of WWII identity cards. They spoke of the British public a few years after the war ended becoming fed up with growing intrusion and harassment, with every jobs-worth official from post office clerks to railway porters, bus inspectors to bobbies on the beat constantly demanding people's identity cards. They told of people gathering in the streets to burn their cards in defiance of what had come to symbolise an overbearing and ever more intrusive state.

  And well they might! Wartime identity cards, when introduced in 1939, had just three administrative functions: national service, national security and food rationing. Within 11 years this had risen to 39, and showing your identity card for the most trivial of purposes had become routine.

  This began to unravel on 26 June 1951, due to the defiance of one man: Clarence Willcock. Mr Willcock refused to produce his ID card when stopped by a police officer. Lord Goddard, Lord Chief Justice, summing up in the resulting appeal court case said; "To use Acts of Parliament, passed for particular purposes during war, in times when the war is past—tends to turn law-abiding subjects into lawbreakers, which is a most undesirable state of affairs". As a result, in 1952, as Winston Churchill abolished the last compulsory ID scheme in Britain.

  Throughout the ID Card debate we have been repeatedly told the cards, and the vast database behind them, the National Identity Register, will help fight crime, identity theft, illegal immigration, benefit fraud, and terrorism. The detail of these claims has been analysed and discussed at length and is beyond the scope of this submission. But experts and officials in many fields have argued soundly that they are exaggerated, misleading or plain wrong. But the spinning of those lies persists, as though on the Goebbels principal that if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.

  The success of these lies however would seem to be central to the aims of those pushing for the National Identity Register and a wider surveillance culture. A 2004 YouGov survey for Privacy International indicated: "millions of people would take to the streets or break the law to fight the UK Government's proposed national ID card" and "more than a million people would go to prison rather than register for a card".1

  The tactic to disarm such popular opposition has been to generate a climate of fear about the issues mentioned above, and then proffer greater surveillance and ID cards as the solution.

  Against this background of fear a sizeable part of the population seems to have lost or abandoned its capacity for critical thought. Last November the Information Commissioner Richard Thomas stated: "Two years ago I warned that we were in danger of sleepwalking into a surveillance society. Today I fear that we are in fact waking up to a surveillance society that is already all around us." But there is no outcry from this ever more scrutinised society—why? Two factors would seem to explain this: "stealth" and "mission creep". Essential tools for anyone wanting to subdue a population, they are shrewd alternatives to the jack-boot enforcement of other times and places, but crucially, they can achieve the same results. One could be forgiven for feeling that the secret would appear to be to progress slowly in small increments, introducing "necessary" and benign legislation, which once passed, provides powers that can be employed in ways which could not have been foreseen by the public, press, or Parliament whose job it should be to filter out such dangerous aims.2

  This sounds like conspiracy theory of course. But take the Terrorism Act (section 44), it allows the police to detain without the need to demonstrate "reasonable suspicion". This happened in 2003 no less then 995 times against peace protesters. (Liberty report "Casualty of War" 2003).3 The Act was even used to expel the now famous heckler from last year's Labour party conference. Under The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, two people were convicted for "reading"—reading out the names of UK soldiers killed in Iraq at the Cenotaph. (Liberty press release—26 January 2006)4 The Protection From Harassment Act, passed to protect women from stalkers was used to imprison a peaceful protester. (; Demonstrator sent To Lewes Prison—17 June 2005)5 These are not isolated cases of abuse, the list goes on.

  If one looks back to 1934 at the hidden agenda of surveillance built into the WWII ID cards, a far less intrusive device, one can see the dangers that exist today. Sylvanus Percival Vivian, Registrar-General responsible for designing the WWII ID card, identified a strategy referred to as "parasitic vitality": "if it cannot be given enough real peace value of its own it must be given a borrowed and artificial peace value... its use and production and the quoting or recording of the number upon it must be made obligatory in regard to as many as possible of the organised activities in close touch with the life of the people".6 Investigation shows a similar philosophy behind the façade of the Identity Cards Act 2006. When one looks at this in the wider context of things like ePassports that log data about personal travel, centralised medical records without privacy, fingerprinting and biometrics in schools, the Children Act "Information Sharing Index", proposals for fingerprinting in pubs, police roadside fingerprinting, the recording of all car journeys as a matter of course using ANPR, the proposed addition of listening devices and facial recognition on public CCTV systems, it is impossible not to believe that a faction of the state has developed an unhealthy obsession with possessing all the information it is possible to possess on all of the population.

  What is clear is that the ID card project alone, if implemented, will in time lead to a population totally dependant upon it for most of the normal transactions of their daily social and commercial existence. Another and even more pernicious aspect of the scheme's "collateral damage" will be its impact on minority groups. In 2003 criminologist Ben Bowling found that African-Caribbeans are 27 times more likely than Whites, and Asians 18 times more likely to be stopped under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act.7 The current DNA database holds samples on hundreds of thousands of innocent people, including 24,000 juveniles, who were never cautioned, charged or convicted of any crime. 38% of all black men are represented on that database, while just 10% of white men are.8, 2 In other European countries with less intrusive identity systems we see shocking abuse of minorities: In France young people North African descent complained they were asked to produce their papers several times a week following new laws in the mid 1990s. In Belgium, a citizen who produced her ID card was disbelieved by police, who decided she must be an "illegal" carrying a fake document because she was of African origin. She was detained for three days and almost deported to a country she had never seen.9

  But this Government deny legislation supporting a surveillance culture will be abused yet we witness a string of abuse of existing laws. They deny our civil liberties are being eroded while limiting our freedom to assemble and speak. In the same vein, they deny that identity cards will be detrimental to society, yet it is plain to all who examine the detail, that this Act of Parliament will alter forever the balance of power between the rulers and those ruled. It is ironic that such a seismic shift in this delicate balance, and in this direction, has not been seen in Western Europe since the 1930s.

  But what has a Government of any colour to gain from such surveillance? The creeping surveillance and ID card project, once embedded in our culture, will by its insidious nature, create a widespread subconscious fear of "making trouble" of any kind. Those who are marginalized and most need a voice will be least able to speak out for fear of the ever-present threats, which such a system of total centralised surveillance and control embodies.

  It must therefore be hoped that the current review will recognise the disastrous direction taken by recent legislation and thinking, and that a more enlightened group of people will take the state back from the brink of this Orwellian abyss, people who value fundamental freedoms, who understand and will defend the subtleties of the relationship between state and individual. In the words of Edmund Burke: "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance."

June 2007


1  Editor——2004. A public opinion survey commissioned by watchdog group Privacy International. sid=1083

2  Henry Porter—Blair's Big Brother Legacy—June 30, 2006.

3  Liberty report Casualty of War—2003.

4  Liberty press release—26 January 2006.

5—Anti-EDO demonstrator sent To Lewes Prison. 17 June 2005.

6  Jon Agar, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge.—Identity cards in Britain: past experience and policy implications. November 2005.

7, 8  Arun Kundnani—"Anti-terrorism" policing leads to arbitrary use of stop and search—Independent Race And Refugee News Network—20 January 2004.

8, 9  Henry Porter—We don't live in a police state yet, but we're heading there—The Observer—22 January 2006

9, 10  Arun Kundnani—ID cards: implications for Black, Minority Ethnic, migrant and refugee communities—The Institute of Race Relations 26 May 2005.

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