Private ID scans leave fetish club-goers feeling exposed
If you don't go on the list, you're not coming in
A security clampdown at a London club provides a troubling glimpse of the extent of privatised monitoring brought about by government policy.
A Reg reader drew our attention to complaints that visitors to fetish club Torture Garden must now hand over personal details before they are allowed to enter. Our follow-up investigation gave disturbing new insights into the farming-out of ID checks and its implications; as Phil Booth of No2ID puts it, "Two of the biggest sources of data insecurity over the next few years will be government policy and bureaucratic abdication of responsibility."
Torture Garden regulars must provide details not because sado-masochists are believed to be more prone to violence than anyone else – in fact, research suggests that on the whole, they are often better behaved than the general public – but because Torture Garden events take place on the premises managed by SEOne Club.
Following a shooting incident (not during a TG event), police requested a licensing condition that in future, "all persons entering the premises must supply verifiable identification details that are passed through a digital scanning and recording system such as Club Scan, Idvista or similar computerised system". They duly installed Clubscan – software and equipment developed by IDScan - and now all club-goers must submit one of a number of approved pieces of ID at the door before they are allowed to enter.
IDScan promotes its system on various grounds: it helps organisations comply with legislation, particularly that relating to licensing and age restrictions; it is a useful marketing tool; it assists in maintaining exclusion lists; data can be shared amongst groups of clubs to create area exclusions; and so on.
Its core function is its ability to read 223 different IDs and 162 different passports: it is capable of storing data including, as far as we can tell, name, address, photo and passport number. It is password-protected, and we have had no complaints about its inherent security.
In the case of the SEOne set-up, a spokesman told us that only senior management can access it: that information on the system is password-protected, and the equipment is removed from the front door when the club is shut and locked in a secure place.
A spokesman added that data is retained on the system for three years, in order to comply with the Data Protection Act. IDVista make similar claims for their equipment. According to its site, it "verifies the age and validity of your customers whilst building a unique data base enabling you to monitor, manage and market to your clientele".
So where’s the problem? According to Phil Booth, this is all about coercion through the licensing system and exploitation of a culture created by the Home Office. In its drive toward ever greater security for young people. the government have passed ever more punitive legislation aimed at separating young people from dangerous items. Age limits for cigarettes and knives have both been raised. Meanwhile, the penalties for retailers under legislation such as the Licensing Act 2003 have become ever more draconian.
Speaking in respect of another of IDScan’s products, Agescan, MD Tamlyn Thompson said: "Any shops or licensed premises failing an underage test twice within three months will lose the right to sell the item in question. AgeSafe is designed to both stop teenagers buying these products and also protect retailers’ livelihoods."
From a pure disorder prevention perspective, there is much to be said for these devices. The Met have said that it may recommend that premises install "identification scanning... as a condition of licensing based on the past history of crime levels in the venue and an assessment as to whether the installation of such a system may help to prevent or reduce similar incidents occurring at the venue in future".
Southwark Police, in whose area SEOne is situated, are currently working with several licensed premises in the area to pilot a six month trial of electronic ID scanning systems: the machines are being loaned and paid for by funding from the Home Office.
We asked the Met whether they were not concerned with the broader picture: after all, even if the systems are themselves secure, it has not been unknown for some clubs to be associated with various forms of crime, both organised and otherwise. Surely, pushing for wider and wider installation of private systems that gather and hold personal data was asking for trouble?
The Met see this is a totally separate issue, and not relevant to the installation of the machines for crime prevention purposes. Besides, the decision to install was taken by clubs or by local licensing authorities: it is not the Met’s responsibility.
The Home Office appear equally disinclined to accept any responsibility: businesses are bound by licensing agreements. That is up to local bodies, and the Home Office is not going to apologise for any laws it has passed in respect of age conditions. Besides, their spokeswoman added: "It is up to individuals whether or not they visit a club."
They also felt that comparing government hands-off attitude in this case to their hands-on approach in respect of, say, speeding or eating, was wholly misguided.
Neither police nor the Home Office appear to be at all concerned that the sort of data that these systems will pick up is of great potential interst to both criminals and terrorists: neither organisation felt that there was any great issue in respect to the mass introduction of this technology on the High Street.
Presumably, on the day that the majority of pubs, clubs, off-licences and corner shops have installed this technology, the authorities will set up a working party to consider the security implications. ®