Personal Tech

Activists raise alarm over insidious creep of surveillance in the UK

Report calls for government data 'firewall', spy-free schools, up-to-date laws

By Rebecca Hill

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Campaigners have sounded a fresh alarm against the normalisation of surveillance across the UK, the effects of the “nothing to fear, nothing to hide” rhetoric, and unchecked experiments with public data-sharing.

The warnings come in Big Brother Watch’s latest report, The State of Surveillance 2018 (PDF), which brings together opinions from various activists and targeted groups.

Among the demands made in the report, and at the launch event, are that the government create a “firewall” to stop excessive data-sharing between civil service departments.

Pointing to the controversial use of patient data or school children’s records for immigration enforcement, Gracie Bradley of Liberty condemned bulk information sharing that risked damaging public trust.

“Creating an atmosphere of hostility and fear damages people’s trust in public services,” she said in the report, and agreements to pass along data will undermine people’s right to access public services.

She called for “an iron-clad firewall” between Home Office immigration control and other departments, and a move away from the prioritisation of immigration enforcement over the protection of public service data.

Running underneath this is the government’s rampant desire to suck up information on everything it can, as well as pressure to make better use of the data it holds.

But there are concerns that this not only co-opts front line workers into the surveillance state, but relies on a civil service that lacks the skills to predict problems, both social and technical, of one application or another.

Similar issues have been raised about public sector use of algorithms in decision-making.

Other speakers at the event voiced concerns about the normalisation of surveillance in schools and the damaging effects it can have on people’s rights to assembly.

For instance, people may decide not to attend even a peaceful protest if they fear having their biometric data recorded or ending up on “domestic extremism” databases.

The long-term impact of having your name permanently recorded – for instance employers’ blacklisting of trade union members, or people whose names are put on the Gangs Violence Matrix database – were also discussed.

The report noted that one of the most difficult attitudes to combat is common refrain of “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” – but this statement both depoliticises government snooping and forgets basic human rights.

In her section of the report, Jay Watts, a consultant clinical psychologist, also pointed out it was ignorant of a psychological truth: “one does not need to have done anything wrong to feel that one has done something wrong”.

Watts said the effect and impact of feeling constantly surveilled, particularly for people in already marginalised groups, need to be better considered.

And, although much of the focus was on state surveillance, it was noted that commercial firms increasingly offer kit to the public sector, for instance in schools.

This makes it harder for campaign groups to access information through tools like Freedom of Information requests, because – despite pressure from some MPs – the Act still doesn’t apply to government contractors.

Meanwhile, there is an increasing use of tracking technology by workplaces.

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A recent study from the TUC, a federation of trade unions in England and Wales, found that most staffers expected their bosses to snoop on them – but such acceptance is something the campaigners want to fight.

Underlying this is a confusion of regulators and oversight bodies, and the reality that legislation will always have to play catch up to technology anyway.

The lawful basis for various activities, such as biometric data collection by the taxman and the police or the extraction of data from suspects’ phones, has been repeatedly queried.

But the risk is that campaigners’ calls for fresh laws are nothing more than shouts into the void. Because government policies can fall short, legislative processes are slow and parliament has a packed agenda – by which time the tech will most likely have moved on again. ®

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