Big Brother is watching you

FRFI 169 October / November 2002

Earlier this year, Helen Burnes was among thousands of people targeted for ‘bad-jacketing’ by Zionists, who used the e-mail addresses of pro-Palestinian activists to send out disgusting and racist material calling for the removal of Palestinians from their land. Their method of electronic intervention was simple and it revealed the vulnerability of our electronic data. While digital technology has been celebrated for changing the way we live, the issue remains one of control; class conflict has been reproduced through the optic fibres which carry our internet traffic and the digitalised databases which systematically and indiscriminately compile information on us all. The conflict between the oppressed and the oppressor has been intensified by the new technology. In the second article about big brother surveillance (see FRFI 160 April/May 2001), Helen Burnes reports.

This strategy, the appropriation of individual’s electronic data, is being built into the functions of the capitalist state and corporations. In the past, surveillance was based on the targeting of specific individuals or groups. Now systematic surveillance actively profiles millions of people at one time. Homes and communications can be bugged and computers are being amalgamated with surveillance camera systems to provide real time ‘dataveillance’ to continuously track everyone’s movements. We are experiencing the industrialisation of the facility to invade privacy and track citizens.

Snoopers’ Charter
‘Since Labour came to power they have introduced draconian surveillance laws on e-mail, the recent anti-terrorism legislation, new proposals to extend data-sharing between government departments and the “Snoopers’ Charter”, abandoned two weeks ago. A worrying trend is emerging.’ (Karen Bartlett, Director of Charter 88, 30 June 2002)

Labour’s Home Secretary David Blunkett attempted to rush the ‘Snoopers’ Charter’ through Parliament in June 2002 without debate but was forced to temporarily suspend the legislation due to opposition. It intended to give 24 different government agencies the right to systematically monitor and store private emails and phone calls without notification. The legislation comes under the jurisdiction of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), introduced in 2000, giving police, military, intelligence services and the Inland Revenue sweeping powers to monitor and store e-mails, internet data, phone calls and faxes of anyone in the UK. The ‘Snoopers’ Charter’ extends to agencies like the Health Department and the Parish Council the same powers of electronic surveillance as MI6. The Labour government claims that 11 September and the War on Terrorism necessitate this level of intrusion. What nonsense! What can the Food Standards Agency and other such quangos have to do with detecting terrorism? We can all just about breathe without it being logged on a central database.

The Anti-Terrorism Act, rushed into law in December 2001, entered the same information warehouse as RIPA. These two measures give the British state more powers than any other so-called ‘democracy’ in the world to capture private communications and piece them together to provide comprehensive details of all its citizens.
And who will safeguard the entire population against abuse of these powers? A retired appeal court judge, Sir Swinton Thomas, appointed by the government itself with the introduction of RIPA, will be responsible for checking tens of thousands of data retention notices with a staff of two people. In March 2001, a parliamentary committee heard from Swinton Thomas that he didn’t even have enough staff to open the mail.

Covert surveillance techniques kept secret in court
A March 2002 manual leaked from the Association of Chief Police Officers about the ‘Snoopers’ Charter’ acknowledged that the ability to access communications logs without first seeking the permission of a judge will give British police far greater powers than their counterparts in most countries. Once approved, the manual was to be used by every police force in the UK, the National Crime Squad, the National Crime Intelligence Service, the Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency and Customs and Excise, and it refers to ‘application of covert techniques, the release of which would be likely to aid offenders in the frustration of law enforcement.’ In other words, the state institutions face a dilemma; they are legally permitted to use covert techniques to uncover evidence for prosecution, but they may wish not to present the evidence in court because it will give away their covert methods. Law enforcement agencies will thus apply for a Public Interest Immunity (PII) certificate to prevent disclosure of their intelligence collection methods at a trial. This means that defendants could be convicted with evidence they have not heard, collected covertly without their knowledge. ‘This story gets worse and worse. Preventing the defendant from having access to secret documents but giving them to the judge is a fundamental erosion of the right to fair trial.’ (John Wadham, Liberty)

Can you keep a secret?
Under RIPA, hearings of the government’s new surveillance watchdog, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, must be conducted in secret. The tribunal is responsible for dealing with complaints from people who believe that they have been the target of unlawful surveillance by state organisations, including the police, the intelligence services and Customs and Excise. Civil rights group Liberty is challenging the ruling, on behalf of Malcolm Kennedy, who says that police are continually interfering with his communications as a result of his complaining about police conduct in a criminal case in 1994 in which he was framed for murder and later convicted of manslaughter. Another challenge to the ban on public and press access to the Tribunal involves allegations that telephone calls between Britain and Ireland were routinely intercepted by GCHQ, the government’s eavesdropping agency.

Smile for the cameras
In the previous article on big brother surveillance we noted that the digitalisation of closed circuit television, taking place in all major UK cities, introduced another set of databases to immediately identify and alert controllers when they had pictured logged individuals considered a threat to law and order. There is no independent monitoring to assess the validity of an individual’s entry on such a database, and it is quite clear that this could include political activists and government opponents whose every movement will be tracked, even when out buying groceries. Evidence now suggests that the expensive CCTV technology, ostensibly introduced to reduce crime, is almost ineffective, reducing crime by just 5%, while a Home Office investigation showed that street lighting was four times more effective.

Surveillance facts – UK

• Around one million people in the UK are employed to collect personal information on the population, from financial data to internet transactions.

• Britain is the leading surveillance nation on earth. There are 1.5 to 2 million CCTV cameras covering public and semi-public places in Britain. This is four times the number, per capita, than any other country. 500 town councils in Britain operate CCTV schemes that record, scan and share data from some 40,000 CCTV cameras. A person shopping in London can expect to be caught on camera more than 500 times in a day.

• Details of every economically active adult in the UK are located, on average, in around 600 major databases.

• Around 2,000 words a week are collected and recorded about the lives of each adult in Britain. By the time a person reaches mid-life, the equivalent of a large three volume novel exists on almost every aspect of their life.

• Within ten years, police will have collected and archived the DNA of most of Britain’s male population.

• A recent investigation by the European Parliament concluded that nearly all forms of electronic communication are now routinely scanned and profiled for use by national security agencies and law enforcement.

• All telephones in Britain are systematically monitored by a digital word-recognition system, containing around 200 ‘keywords’. These will trigger the eavesdropping system to whizz back to the beginning of the conversation, wrap up the entire communication and package it off to be analysed by a human being. Using regional accents and public telephones can prevent detection unless the individual is ‘voice-printed’. This is the equivalent of a finger-print and means that person will be detected from any phone, regardless of topic or accent, and all conversations will be monitored. This technology is expensive and presumably reserved for a small
number of targets.

• Up to 200,000 UK school children over seven have been fingerprinted as part of a cost cutting ‘automation’ of school libraries, without the knowledge or consent of their parents. The technology, which is similar to identification systems used in US prisons and the German military, has been installed in 350 UK schools. The accustomisation of children to identification technology means they are more likely to accept ID cards and DNA testing.

See Simon Davies: and

ID Cards

With the introduction of identity cards, the Labour government will be forcing us to carry the eye of big brother in our own pockets! In the sick humour of Labour jargon, the ID cards are to be named ‘entitlement cards’, because they are compulsory in order to access benefits and public services, such as health and education. But as Home Secretary Blunkett's White Paper made clear, the cards are really about setting up a central database for the 67.5 million citizens legally resident in Britain, so ‘that there is one definitive record which all government departments can use if they wish.’ The government will attempt to introduce ID cards in early 2003.

The cards will have a microchip which stores personal information, including national insurance number, medical records, fingerprint information and bank details. Every card will have a unique identifying number which will allow the state to match all the different data held about each individual on various computers into a single file.

The Labour government has abandoned the pretext of ‘terrorism’ for introducing ID cards. Blunkett has been quite clear that the ‘entitlement cards’ are part of the war on asylum seekers and with it the war on illegal working – black market economy – and benefit fraud. Plans are to give police the power to demand to see the card and asylum seekers will be forced to carry the cards at all times while other citizens can be told to produce their card at a police station within seven days of demand. As journalist Nick Cohen pointed out, the distinction between voluntary and compulsory possession of ID cards is a phoney one: ‘If the aim this time is to find asylum-seekers who have disappeared, British ethnic minorities will, inevitably, be hassled. If they don't carry ID at all times, they'll have repeated trips to the cop shop. If the rest of the population has to produce the cards to prove our entitlement to hospital care or social security, then the poor who depend most on public services, will need to carry the cards on them most if not all the time.’ The white middle and upper class have least to lose.

ID cards are an attack on the poorest sections of British society, the working class, black and Asian communities and immigrants. Even the police view ID cards as futile in crime prevention, saying that they rarely have problems identifying suspects. Organised criminals will clearly be capable of forging ‘entitlement cards’. The cost of the cards has been estimated as up to £1 billion. The Labour government is increasing social control, tightening its iron clutch on the most marginalised and alienated sections of society, the sections of society which have the greatest potential to constitute a real opposition to the capitalist system. Along with electronic surveillance, this big brother infrastructure is also being used to monitor and repress those political activists who challenge its authoritarian and racist rule.

The process is still in its infancy. New, fantastical surveillance technologies, in the realm of science fiction, are developed every year. We must not be intimidated, but must adapt our communication and mobilisation techniques to counter intensifying levels of social control. Assume everything we say or write is monitored by the state, but remember that once the people decide to resist, no technology or surveillance can hold back the movement.


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