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Headspace: Looking for Western values in Kensington

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In the months that had passed since my visit to the Abode of the Devil, I'd noted iontrack scanners, a trace detector of molecules of interest, vying for the role of a policeman's best friend. It was more expensive, costing up to £40,000 a unit and £1 a swab, and appeared to be equally unreliable, if not more so, in its ability to correctly identify illegal drugs, but it worked well as a police tool for increasing their powers without recourse to the law. It was wheeled round licensed premises, erected in club doorways and taken round festivals like a circus trick. As with many of the police toys that haven't been authorised by legislation and exist outside of the regulatory framework for surveillance, it is described as a 'voluntary' procedure. Members of the public are asked if they are happy to be swiped with a swab. A refusal is frequently treated by the police as grounds for suspicion justifying a physical search, bypassing the law on stop and search and reversing the burden of proof in a blinding twist of Kafkaesque logic.

The efficiency of a high-tech drug-testing machine unveiled in Britain was amply proven when the government minister showing it off tested positive for cannabis... the politicians were keen to stress that such was the power of the device, positive results could easily come from so-called 'cross contamination', for example by touching cash or a door handle previously handled by a drugs user...

Police explained later that while a positive test could not be used as evidence in court, it could help police to target people to search or question.

I tried asking a couple of the ion-track providers, who had stalls here, about the false positive rate and they had all responded cagily. At first I couldn't understand why. I'd explained that this information should be public knowledge because the police were using its results as grounds for searching people. Then one of the company reps took me aside to explain that there was a large amount of corporate espionage going on, and no one was giving that sort of information away.

During the discussion group on global cooperation, there was a great deal of concern about the number of years the erection of 'Total Systems' would take and a number of complaints from security consultants who had found themselves wrongly blacklisted in the US and the huge bureaucratic nightmare that had beset their struggle to reinstate their security status. I couldn't quite work out what these 'Total Systems' entailed. There was talk of 'future-proof solutions', sensors and 'airborne systems', lasers and 'unmanned vehicle solutions', electro-optics, infra-red and wheelbarrow revolutions.

In the midst of this bizarre barrage of weaponised bureaucracy I had my say on the panel. I simply noted that there had been a lot of talk about the need to balance Western values against heightened security, to ensure that terrorism didn't succeed in destroying our way of life, but not much talk about what these values were.

The only Western value I had heard mentioned was prosperous business, and the requirement for heightened security was good business for most of them here. No one seemed particularly surprised by what I had to say, though a couple of gentlemen came and thanked me quietly afterwards.

Funny, I thought, as I boarded the train home, that in the light of all we'd heard today about the likelihood of a terrorist attack on the tube, so many security analysts were happy to get on it. As the train progressed deeper into the city, it filled with commuters returning home from their office jobs and the suited men clutching their Secure World bags of merchandise brochures blended into the masses before quietly disappearing.

Extracted from Headspace by Amber Marks, published by Virgin Books at £11.99. Copyright © Amber Marks 2008.

Get more information and buy Headspace here

Amber Marks is a criminal lawyer and freelance writer. She is presently undertaking doctoral research into new surveillance technologies at King's College, London.

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