Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/04/14/headspace_chapter_twenty/

Terror on an Olympian scale

Headspace: Looking for Western values in Kensington

By Amber Marks

Posted in Government, 14th April 2008 12:28 GMT

Book extract Headspace is Reg contributor Amber Marks's exploration of how the state and private sectors are trying to exploit the science of smell to watch and control citizens.

The book is published by Virgin Books and is available here.

This week, in Chapter 20, Eden Olympia, Amber attends a conference dubbed Building a Secure World, held at a top secret conference centre somewhere in Olympia, Kensington.

Most of us on the train pulling into Kensington Olympia were probably conference attendees, but the brazen indiscretion of the man opposite me was still a shock to the system.

"The government's still refusing to sign the contract. It's time to play hardball. We need to get the WTO involved, get them to put the pressure on," he said into his mobile phone.

The train doors opened and I tried to follow him to find out what government he was referring to, on behalf of which organisation he was talking and what kind of pressure the World Trade Organisation could exert, but I lost him in the crowd exiting the station.

The security on the way in to the exhibition hall was predictably tight; the event was sponsored by Group 4 Securicor, Smiths Detection, Thales, Security Management Today, Mannix Security, BMT Centre for Homeland Security, Oracle Corporation and L3 Communications.

The ground floor of the exhibition hall was a hive of activity. The Department for Trade and Industry handed out brochures outlining the assistance it could provide to security companies trying to get a head-start in the competitive industry of counter-terrorism and a woman in black leather hotpants wandered up and down the hall with Love Heart sweets, inviting visitors to see the security solutions she could service them with. Numerous companies advertised their wares with the slogan "The Surveillance of Tomorrow Today" and others asked "If the nation looks to you for its security, who do you look to?".

Patrick Mercer, the then shadow home secretary, addressing an audience filled to the brim with security company executives, remarked on the unprecedented move by Eliza Manningham-Buller, the then head of MI5 and reputed bee-keeper, to inform the public of the gravity of the terrorist threat faced. He thought that was a good move.

In fact he thought that the government should do more. The public, he said, should be kept permanently aware of the level of threat faced by the UK of terrorist attacks. The threat level should be regularly communicated in cinemas and on the radio and television, as it was in the US.

"Who knows," he concluded, "how big the next threat will be? There is no way we can tell but the number of casualties will be in the thousands."

Private industry should be given financial incentives to incorporate security systems within their architecture.

The director of Transport Security and Contingencies (TranSec) assured the audience that the government was continuing to invest in counter-terror technologies and was conducting screening trials of new technologies at stations to see how well they worked and, importantly, the extent to which the travelling public was willing to accept them.

The results so far were encouraging. The vast majority of the travelling public in the UK were happy to comply with the security arrangements. In fact, she'd been surprised by how few refused to undergo security screening. The results suggested that the public accepted the necessity of security measures, which democratically legitimised government moves to install them on a more permanent basis.

The director of TranSec confirmed that the threat to the UK was real and serious and that international terrorism was here to stay. It sounded like the War on Terror would be a permanent state of affairs and the audience seemed pleased. The UK government focus, she stated, had to be on research and development of new security technologies.

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.