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UK Public Faces Mass Surveillance Nightmare

The privacy of UK citizens is under siege, as surveillance camera technology and “big data” are running amok, as examined in a recent article in the Guardian. Unfortunately, we citizens seem to be ambivalent about the increased threat, or perhaps we are blind to it. Maybe it’s because it slowly creeps into society, rather than being ushered in, in one fell swoop. We ignore the threat at our peril.

When it comes to privacy and surveillance, I am bewildered by some of the discussions I hear. Often, the argument is posited by usually right-leaning, conservative folks who hold that no one should fear government invasions of privacy if one has nothing to hide – that is, if they are doing nothing illegal or immoral.

Unfortunately, too many citizens cling to this time-worn premise. As a result, government, through its law enforcement and spying agencies, becomes more emboldened. More worrisome is that established surveillance practices and laws – even those meant to have short lives – live on in perpetuity, or grow exponentially in what I like to refer to as “government creep.”

For example, have you ever seen a government entitlement program discontinued or rolled back? In the case of mass surveillance as it is, with the mass collection of data, this should trouble anyone who loves personal liberty and privacy.

A major culprit and focus of the article is the omnipresent CCTV coverage, which is popular among the public mainly because it offers, in their judgment, non-intrusive safety. In fact, the ubiquitous cameras have morphed into a monster that threatens that perceived safety, especially when it merges with the equally fast-growing capabilities of big data.

“What most worries me is the impact of big data and integration of video surveillance,” said Tony Porter, a former senior counter-terrorism officer who has just been reappointed for a second three-year term as surveillance camera commissioner. (I think, by the way, that the mere existence of such a position should sound alarm bells, alerting all to how prolific the problem has become.)

Let’s first zero-in on video surveillance. No longer is it confined to cameras in public spaces mounted on buildings, walls, or poles. Now, the footage is recorded on devices such as body-worn video and smartphone cameras. These view images indiscriminately, so that anyone appearing in the frame is captured forever, unknowingly or wittingly. No one knows exactly how many times nor how often they’ve been captured on video.

What is keeping Tony Porter up at night is that video surveillance run amok is converging with the proliferation of data surveillance technology. The advent and advances of “smart cities” will likely only increase the dangers of privacy violations. “I’m worried about overt surveillance becoming much more invasive because it is linked to everything else,” Porter said.

As an example, and to support the notion of “government creep,” look at a policy that was enacted five years ago, in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics. To bolster security, police were granted the power to retain car number-plate records for two years. Here we are in 2017, yet the police have not relinquished this power.

What is scary is that they do so with impunity, because a cowed public has not put forward any form of legal challenge.

“The danger of delay is that you have a state body that is prepared to play fast and loose with the retention of citizens’ data when there is no requirement,” said commissioner Porter. Personally, I am not surprised, because this is just the way things work, and the politicians and power brokers know it.

A great concern is that, as surveillance cameras and systems proliferate, so the added exposure poses a greater risk. Porter opines that such a danger is ensconced in more and more surveillance video being linked to the internet. He quipped, “The problem is when new and advancing technology is brought together by well-meaning people that actually invades people’s privacy (sic), or worse, leaves privacy at risk of theft or uploading on YouTube.”

The article points out how the pervasive technology has even pierced the privacy of hospitals, and is being used in the mass-immigration crisis to surveil asylum seekers. In both these instances, as with many other situations involving this kind of surveillance, subjects, as well as innocent bystanders, are unaware of the invasion of their private space.

This unacceptable situation is not going to improve on its own. It will take a concerned, aware public to make that happen. Perhaps articles such as this will be the start of such an initiative.

Image credit: By Dmitrii Erekhinskii/Shutterstock.com

Stan Ward Stan Ward has enjoyed writing for 50 years. Writing has been a comfortable companion to a successful business and teaching career for him. Find him on Google+.

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