This is the second of a couple of posts written by Kevin Blowe in advance of the ‘Standing Up To Surveillance’ conference hosted by Fitwatch and Netpol on Sunday. It is reproduced by permission from his blog Random Blowe
In January, I idly speculated in a piece for Red Pepper that groups who increasingly challenge economic and corporate interests, like UKUncut, might start to face a far greater degree of police surveillance. Recent comments made by Met Assistant Commissioner Lynne Owens, on the opportunity to “improve the intelligence picture” offered by the mass arrest of UK Uncut activists last month, seem to indicate that “targeting potential troublemakers” is already starting to receive a higher priority. The crystal ball is working better than I realised.
In the case of those lifted on leaving the occupation of Fortnum & Mason on 26 March, ‘improving the intelligence picture’ presumably refers to the confiscation and examination of individuals’ mobile phones, a reminder that the police are increasingly using highly technological solutions to gather intelligence, as well as their photographers, spotters and plain-clothed officers. And although it may seem strange at a time when senior police officers are warning of cuts in frontline staff, there are big profits to be made by the security & arms corporations that produce and supply the latest software and equipment for direct surveillance, tracking and eavesdropping.
Much of this technology starts life with a focus on countering international terrorism, through a ‘cross-government programme’ run by the Home Office called INSTINCT (Innovative Science and Technology in Counter-Terrorism), designed to invest in private sector research. But through a process of ‘function creep’, what might initially appear to have a solely military or anti-terrorist purpose can soon end up as a serious option for domestic policing. Not everything works out – the use of a surveillance ‘blimp’ developed by a Birmingham company for Greater Manchester Police proved disastrous – but the deployment of the kind of unmanned aerial ‘drone’ used in Afghanistan, provided by MW Power for Merseyside police and equipped with high-resolution cameras instead of weapons, is an obvious example.
However, much of the new surveillance technology is focused on targeting individuals and tracking personal behaviour. There are companies promoting products to Britain’s police forces who are developing software to track mobiles through their GPS information, to hack into wireless networks or to constantly monitor websites and social media, including those that are password-protected. The greater availability of wireless technology means it is possible to make far greater use of temporary video surveillance rather than permanent CCTV and to stream high definition video straight from police vehicles to command centres. The quality of CCTV has been refined though its use for many years at football matches and images are greatly improved, as is the police’s ability to pick out and identify individuals from a greater distance. A number of companies are even developing the capacity for ‘behavioural analytics’ software and ‘artificial neural networks’ to supposedly recognise and ‘learn’ unusual or suspicious behaviour of individuals in large public spaces.
The surveillance trade is invariably involved in a hard-sell of its ‘cost-effective’ alternatives to both human decision-making and the need for extra officers on duty and claiming overtime. This is likely to seem like an increasingly attractive offer for government and for senior police officers at a time of austerity and budget cuts, but what these products amount to are tools for an ever growing surveillance society.
The idea that targeting potential ‘troublemakers’ means tracking and adding them to a secret database – because it is a cheap option compared to the cost of more public order police – can lead to the idea that ‘improving the intelligence picture’ means adding more and more names, including those with no criminal record or history of violence. Using the excuse of saving even more public money, this can in turn mean routinely arresting people to gain access to their mobile phones and see who they associate with – and then the next steps are tracking those mobiles, monitoring e-mail accounts, using video surveillance and even, in the case of protesters, restricting the movement of activists travelling to demonstrations.
If this seems far-fetched, consider how unlikely it would have seemed only five years ago for the police to start using a version of a military unmanned spy drone – or the likelihood that a British police force working with the country’s largest arms manufacturer would one day suggest that this kind of surveillance technology could be used to tackle such terrifying national security priorities as “theft from cash machines, preventing theft of tractors and monitoring antisocial driving”. The slide towards greater surveillance always starts somewhere – and the squeeze on spending might well turn out to signal a new and unwelcome starting point.