Mass Surveillance

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Mass Surveillance

Secure under the watchful eyes - British Transport poster with absolutely NO sinister overtones. At all. Honestly.

Wherever there is power there is a perceived need for secrecy. Kings, princes and officials - elected and unelected alike - have always sought to conceal their actions. Sometimes, concealment is arguably necessary - few would disagree that during times of war (and we particularly think of WWII in this example) some secrets must be kept; deployment of troops, battlefield situation reports, casualty numbers and so on. Others are less defensible. Official mistakes - ranging in seriousness from personal misdemeanours to attempted cover-ups of criminal matters are shaded by the auspices of secrecy to give plausible deniability to malfeasance or embarrassing truths.

But the need for concealment cuts both ways. While the state reserves the right to keep certain of its activities away from the prying eyes of the public, it recognises few such boundaries in return. The mail spy, wiretapper, informer and agent provocateur has always been with us (recall us to the alleged "insider" who is thought to have revealed the Gunpowder Treason at its critical moment) but the spread of technology has widened the potential for scrutiny of private lives to a degree unimaginable a decade or two ago. No longer are unreliable human informants a necessity, but can be replaced by electronic surveillance on a colossal scale.

You may not be fomenting popular revolt or engaged in illegal activities, but increasingly sophisticated tools and personnel can be brought to bear on almost any UK citizen. Fingerprinting, for example, was conceived as a way in which those guilty of crimes could be brought to justice. To take someone's fingerprints was the police's sole prerogative - and even then only under very specific circumstances and under tight legal control.

But as technology made it easier to read fingerprint data its use began to proliferate. You may be reading this now using a device that is locked by fingerprint recognition, for example - or perhaps you signed in to work using a system approved by HR company.

Perhaps yet more sinisterly, if you have children at high school there is a significant chance that their fingerprints have been taken. Ostensibly, this is to facilitate cashless payments for school meals, but it still places personal data in the hands of a body of people who are effectively unaccountable for its use - to say nothing of the potential for leakage from internal systems and into unfriendly hands.

Tracking devices in bins are common place. Your car registration is routinely taken by traffic enforcement cameras for reasons such as the London congestion charge or for speeding offences. Automated recognition systems are increasingly being used to enforce parking regulations.

This is not to say that in individual cases or for specific reasons that any of these activities cannot be defended. What has changed is the scale, scope and reach of these activities and their subsequent, creeping normalisation. Barely any company will not reserve the right to sell your personal details to a third party in their impenetrable terms and conditions and, it seems, ancient legal boundaries.

Away from the massive scale of military operations such as ECHELON, GCHQ or Menwith Hill, organisations as seemingly benign as the BBC and RSPCA have acquired quasi-legal powers to investigate your personal life and even to enter your property. Somewhere between the two extremes sit local councils, who increasingly carry out surveillance operations on a generally unsuspecting public.

In this section, we will explore some of the truths and myths about the reach and capability of state surveillance.

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Author: Ian Freud   |  Last updated: 17th August 2017 | © Weird Island 2010-2017
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