The 14 Words

Thursday, 17 October 2013

“Intelligence Led Surveillance” and Britain’s Police State: The Manufacture of “Mass Surveillance by Consent”

Is mass surveillance so bad if you can’t see it?

In the dark ages known as the twentieth century, mass surveillance of entire populations was a sport practised only by elitist totalitarian states . Those unlucky enough to live in what was then termed a “free country”, had to sit on the sidelines and simply imagine what it was like to be subject to constant state intrusion.


But times change, and after several wars of the twentieth century (including the war to end all wars) mass surveillance was finally liberated. The liberators of surveillance even adopted a snappy slogan to help spread their evangelic message, which today is more commonly used than that one about washing up liquid – “nothing to hide, nothing to fear”. Don’t bother de-constructing this slogan in any way – just marvel at its symmetry and its almost Shakespearean rhythm.

You see the secret to success of the architects of “surveillance for all” was they spotted that surveillance is so much easier to sell to the masses when it’s invisible.

Take for instance roadside checkpoints. Some unenlightened people, who hadn’t yet adopted the officially sanctioned acceptance of surveillance, didn’t like being stopped by uniformed officials and being asked to produce their papers and explain their movements. So like sweetening a bitter pill to make a child take their medicine, the surveilligalitarians introduced automation.

Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras were first developed back in the dark days of the 1970s in Britain [1]. The Home Office had a team of very clever boffins who beavered away in their Scientific Development Branch to develop a system to film number plates on vehicles and then convert the image into electronic letters and numbers. Those letters and numbers could then be fed into a new type of magic box known as a “computer”. The theory was that these “computers” could then do very clever things like compare the numbers and letters to those on a list of cars and go “ping” when it filmed a car from the list.

The year of the subversives

A secret test system was placed on the M1 motorway in England which was spotted by a trouble making New Scientist journalist in 1984 (no really!). That journalist was called Steve Connor, and he wrote an article [2] showing little understanding of the ground breaking contribution to the world of surveillance equality that was being done by the Home Office. Connor it seems was concerned that the list of “stolen vehicles” on the Police National Computer wasn’t just made up of stolen vehicles, it also contained vehicles of “interest” to the police and those “seen or checked in noteworthy circumstances”; he wrote:
The Home Office refuses to give assurances that the equipment will not eventually be employed in monitoring the movements of vehicles falling into these categories. A spokeswoman said: “At the moment there is no intention of using it for anything other than detecting stolen cars.” But, she added, this is flexible. As she put it: “When the Russians take over next week things might change.”
The Home Office unlike Connor saw that surveillance is a laughing matter and did all they could to put the fun back into state spying.

Not everyone unfortunately got the joke. Also in 1984 (I know what is it with that year and anti-surveillance subversives?) the Greater London Council (GLC) produced a report [3] that looked at how the police were using their newfangled “computers”. They had spotted that police were using the new Police National Computer (PNC) to manually run more random checks on vehicles. The act of running a check on a plate meant that invisible alerts were being sent to the British secret police, known then as now as special branch, with regard to vehicles of “interest”.

For instance, if special branch were monitoring a meeting of union leaders (at date of writing this remains a perfectly legal activity), and noted the car number plates of those attending, and put them in the PNC as vehicles of “interest”, and if a policeman subsequently stopped one of those cars for any reason (such as a defective headlamp) and ran a check on the car, then, unknown to the policeman or the driver, special branch would be sent an alert telling them when and where the vehicle had been spotted. The GLC were worried about the expanded reach of special branch as a result of the computerised vehicle lists (also known as indexes) and the danger of hooking these up to automatic cameras. The GLC report said:
The increasing rate of vehicle checking by the ordinary police officer therefore acts to enlarge the scope of Special Branch surveillance. Although it is not general police policy to gather and collate information on every vehicle of ‘interest’ to the police, the structure of the PNC’s [Police National Computer] indexes, and the use of devices that read car number plates automatically, leave mass surveillance as a policy to be determined independently by the police. This possibility in a democracy is unacceptable.
What the GLC forgot was that in the surveillance Garden of Eden (or surveilleden) that was t come ,”democracy” would just become another sort of slogan with little opportunity for the surveilled masses (or survmassed) to actually influence very much.


1 comment:

  1. Post democratic era, already quoted by some political players, means post white race.

    IRONKRAFT.

    ReplyDelete