At what point will the British public realise that its privacy and freedom is in mortal danger? If the new surveillance commissioner Andrew Rennison is right about the development of high-definition and facial-recognition technologies in CCTV systems, it should be today, because these technologies represent an unprecedented threat. They are being allowed to proliferate without any regulation or consideration as to how they will eventually be deployed against the individual.
You can pay attention to this issue, or you can let it go. That’s what most of us did with the automatic number-plate recognition camera system (ANPR) which was installed on Britain’s major road and in town centres to watch in real time and log 90% of vehicle journeys. The decision was taken not by parliament but by the Association of Chief Police Officers – whose proceedings are secret, because Acpo is a private limited company.
It is remarkable this was allowed in a country that prides itself on history of liberty. It is happening again, but with even greater implications for a free society. Rennison, a former police officer who has just been confirmed in the job of surveillance commissioner, paints a stark picture in the Independent: “A tiny camera in a dome with 360-degree view can capture your face in the crowd, and there are now the algorithms that run in the background.” The test data he has seen suggests that cameras will pick out a face in a crowd with a 90% success rate.
That means no privacy in the shopping mall, on the train, in children’s classrooms and changing rooms, at the match, in the street, in restaurants or pubs. All the cameras currently operating “for your security” can be updated and converted to recognise faces. Wherever you go, someone will be logging your movements – whether it is the police or the big supermarket chains that are anxious to monitor the behaviour of customers in their stores. But the vital fact to remember is that all private CCTV cameras may be accessed by the authorities and are therefore, in effect, part of the state’s surveillance system.
When campaigning against ID cards I argued that it allowed police and government agencies to know too much about our lives. The ID card would have served as a tracker that logged all our important transactions, which then could have been examined without our knowledge. The point about the ID card was not so much that it allowed us to identify ourselves, which would have been fine, but rather that it gave the state the ability to identify us.
There is a world of difference between these two, and it is for this reason that these new surveillance systems represent as great a threat as the ID card. In one sentence: they allow the state and big, secretive corporations to know way too much about us. When people have that kind of power, they always abuse it. If you doubt me, recall that the police national computer system has been used by serving officers for illegal purposes. And consider how a government in a tight situation might be tempted to use a national face-recognition system to keep tabs on people to stifle protest, free expression and assembly.
We need a privacy law – not some vague and well-meaning article in the Human Rights Act, which has never ever guaranteed anyone’s privacy (ANPR system is a testament to that), but a bill in parliament that asserts our right to guard our privacy against the state, corporations and the malevolence of future governments. But right now, MPs must have a serious look at the technology, and what is already happening on our streets, because the nightmarish future is already here.
As I say you can let this go, or you can make it one of the issues that really matters to parliament. Without privacy there can be no democracy – we all know that.