Surveillance in Britain

This was originally posted in 2013 — and it’s time for a repeat airing:

Rod Rees writes: In researching my book Invent-10n it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t the surveillance side of State intervention in our lives – the employing of cameras and digital-communication intercepts to collect data about us – that we should be worried about but the use that is made of that data. And this, in turn, led me to the belief that there are now seven truisms regarding the surveillance-pervasive Britain of 2013.

Truism 1: We’re being watched.

Although statistics on the subject are difficult to pin down, the consensus seems to be that, by some margin, the British are the most watched people on the planet, with there being one CCTV camera for every fourteen of us (a conservative estimate, by the way). Now that’s an awful lot of surveillance and as none of these cameras are regulated, there is no information regarding the data they collect, for how long it’s held or who has access to it. The reality is that no matter where we are, we’re being watched.

What this also signals is how obsessive the British authorities (be they police, security services or local councils) are with CCTV surveillance: they have become the most avaricious voyeurs in history. The British authorities like to watch.

Truism 2: Our e-communications are being monitored.

What commentators seem to have missed in the brouhaha following Edward Snowden’s revelations regarding GCHQ’s Tempora system – the hacking into the transatlantic fibre-optic cables by the British security services – was that Tempora is only one of the programs our spooks are developing to better access, store and analyse our e-communications. It seems to me naïve in the extreme to imagine that they – through some newly-discovered sense of fair-play and restraint – have been able to resist the temptation to create programs which are equally effective in tracking the calls you make on your cell-phone, in reading the e-mails you send and receive and in monitoring the social media comments you post. The assumption must be that all our e-communications have been (or soon will be) compromised.

The British authorities don’t just like to watch, they like to listen too.

Truism 3: Soon GCHQ will know us better than we know ourselves.

The aim of information gathering is prediction, to be able to identify the bad guys and to interdict them – Minority Report-style – before they create trouble. The only way to be able to do this is to have access to all personal data relating to everybody in the UK and to be able to manipulate it.

This nexus point – the time when the security services have the ability to collect, store, collate and analyse the tsunami of e-data produced on a daily basis – is fast approaching. The ever tumbling cost of data warehousing makes it financially and technically feasible to store the mass of information hoovered up daily by the plethora of cameras and e-surveillance gizmos which GCHQ operates or to which it has access. This has been shadowed by the development of ever more sophisticated algorithms, the enormously complex decision trees used to solve breath-takingly difficult problems by breaking these problems down into a long string of binary choices. They operate much like the neurons powering our brain which is a good analogy given that they have become so damned sophisticated that they can now imitate thought processes.

Infinitely large data storage coupled with the use of unfeasibly powerful algorithms means that soon (a couple of years?) our security services will have a real-time 360⁰ portrait of each and every one of us. They will know what we did, who we interacted with, what we said, what we wrote: in short, they will know everything. All of these data will be poured over looking for patterns that might suggest we’re thinking of doing something of which the government doesn’t approve.

Truism 4: There’s nothing we can do to prevent the spread of surveillance.

Scott McNealy’s famous maxim ‘Privacy is dead; get over it’ becomes more pertinent by the day. The demands from the liberal press that ‘something must be done’ to curb the inclination of the security services to dig and delve into our lives are, ultimately, futile. Knowledge is power and politicians (the putative masters of the security services) are in the business of acquiring and wielding power. The upshot is that any ‘controls’ imposed will have only a temporary effect: as soon as the next 9/11 comes along that great get-out-of-jail-free card ‘National Security’ will be played and off we’ll go again. We will never be able to put the surveillance genie back in the lamp.

The recent revelation that the Foreign Office is withholding over one million files which should have been made public under the Public Records Act demonstrates the arrogance of the powers-that-be when it comes to complying with the law.

Truism 5: It isn’t surveillance that is the problem, it’s the use made of the information collected by surveillance.

Okay, so trying to limit or curtail surveillance is a fatuous endeavour and one which is destined to fail. The problem is that the availability of this surveillance-collected information puts democracy at risk. This is what I call the ‘J. Edgar Hoover Syndrome’, where the power derived from having access to so much (often very sensitive) information has a corrupting effect on those accessing it. In an information-driven society it will be oh-so-easy to follow the declension that reads.

Yesterday the Government was serving you…

Today the Government is surveilling you…

Tomorrow the Government will be controlling you.

As Paul Valéry said, ‘politics is the art of preventing people taking part in affairs which properly concern them’.

Truism 6: Forget about controlling surveillance; control the fruits of that surveillance.

So what is to be done?

We are told constantly that GCHQ’s surveillance systems are necessary to protect the British people from terrorists and others who wish to do us harm. The danger is, of course, that this purpose becomes blurred and that surveillance becomes a means of control and of social engineering. The total automation of surveillance will protect us from this sort of function creep.

We must remember that it is not the computers that threaten our freedoms, but the use made of that computer-harvested information by their human masters. Therefore, to protect ourselves, we must take the human element out of the surveillance matrix: we must use the computer to protect us from ourselves. The danger of surveillance is that the information it gathers can be used by an authoritarian-minded regime to subvert/subjugate a population. So it would be better, in my opinion, not only to automate the collection and storage of surveillance derived information – which is, broadly, where we are today – but also its analysis. The computers that drive the algorithms analysing this data must be divorced from the direction of the security services: the hunt for the bad guys must be made totally automatic.

Not as far-fetched as it might sound. Algorithms can be written which screen all the information collected by surveillance looking for connections and trends and then the system would act – automatically and independently of human intervention – to thwart any identified threats. Any attempt to use the information for a purpose other than protection of the British people from a terrorist threat would be rejected.

The J. Edgar Hoover Syndrome would be cured simply by ensuring that any would-be J. Edgars would be refused access to the information collected by surveillance by the computers controlling it.

Truism 7: Only when the human element is taken out of surveillance will we be safe from surveillance.

Back in 1977 Lord Denning upheld the deportation of Mark Hosenball who disclosed the existence of GCHQ – then a state secret, saying: ‘There is a conflict here between the interests of national security on the one hand and the freedom of the individual on the other. The balance between these two is not for a court of law. It is for the Home Secretary. He is the person entrusted by Parliament with the task. In some parts of the world national security has on occasions been used as an excuse for all sorts of infringements of individual liberty. But not in England.’

We need to change things such that Denning’s assertion is as valid today as it was forty-six years ago.


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