Britain has quietly become the most spied-upon nation in Europe. How? Why? And does it matter? Charles Nevin goes to Manchester, London, Berlin and Bucharest to compare, contrast and discuss ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2009
Spring sunshine in Bucharest’s Piata Revolutiei is tempered by the chill. It is not a day to linger. No one is musing over the memorials, or pondering the balcony where, 20 years ago, a camera caught, for the first time, the exact moment when fear flashed across the face of a dictator as he realised the jig was up.
The years since the fall and execution of Nicolae Ceausescu have not been easy for Romania. The years before under that autarkic megalomaniac left much catching up to do. There has been some success, notably achieving membership of the European Union. And the sight of neatly parked cars in Piata Revolutiei rather than 80,000 chanting protesters proclaims that most cherished human state, normality. Romania, however, still lags behind its western friends in one important growth area of European activity: state surveillance. And it is way behind Britain, whose people are now judged the most intruded upon in Europe.
The Palatul Parlamentului was built by Ceausescu, when it was known by the people as Casa Nebunului (the Madman’s House). With 1,100 rooms, it is the world’s biggest government building, after the Pentagon; one day in March some students from the London School of Economics were being shown round. The Palatul, built in a style best described as Corinthian-Wimpey-Tyrannical, now houses the Romanian parliament, and is still half-empty. The LSE group, recovering afterwards from marble and chandelier exposure, treated the comparison between Romania and Britain with the rigour expected of their institution, requesting the methodology used to arrive at the findings, which, by a fine coincidence, were researched by Privacy International, an independent surveillance watchdog run by an LSE academic, Simon Davies. The measures used are based on protection and enforcement of privacy. Romania gained credit for its safeguards; Britain had the worst result in Europe, falling into the category of “endemic surveillance societies” alongside Russia and China.
The LSE students were not overwhelmingly surprised. The British government has been demonstrating energy and ingenuity in this field for quite some time. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, 2000 (RIPA), one of a series of laws introduced to combat modern terrorism, sets out the conditions for surveillance by the police and security services. It has also been used by other public bodies for electronic and manual surveillance aimed at exposing lesser threats to society. In Cambridge last year the council used hidden CCTV cameras to check whether punt operators were using unauthorised landing places. In Poole the council followed a family, day and night, who were suspected of lying about their address on a school application form. In all, some three-quarters of Britain’s local authorities have used the act as a weapon in the unceasing fight against dog fouling and putting the rubbish out too early, enjoying a 9% success rate in prosecutions, cautions or fixed penalties.
The flavour of Ealing comedy accompanying so many British activities is absent at the other end of the operation, where the Control Order is surveillance made easy by house arrest and electronic tagging without the necessity for a charge or open testing of evidence. In between lie the fruits of the new electronic technology, enticing to the authorities, evil to increasing numbers in Britain, from the robust inheritors of Tom Paine and John Wilkes to such establishment figures as a former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, a former director of public prosecutions, a former director general of MI5, and the current information commissioner of the United Kingdom. The last of these, Richard Thomas, has been loud in warning. His soundbite “sleepwalking into surveillance” has been opposition shorthand since 2004. The former MI5 boss, Dame Stella Rimington, has matched it with talk of “a police state”. The former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham, doesn’t deal in soundbites but is no less compelling, as we shall see.
Sleepwalkers should feel free to scan our information (below) on surveillance by numbers. One feature meriting special notice concerns DNA, a seemingly miraculous aid to order brought into disrepute by the mechanics of its operation: the indefinite retention by the police of DNA samples taken not only from convicted criminals, but from 1m people, including perhaps 100,000 children, who have committed no offence and have in many cases only been witnesses to one. Lovers of renowned dystopian visions of state control will appreciate the attendant language. A 2006 report on reforming public services speaks of “transformational government”, “the totality of the relationship with the citizen”, and, best of all, the establishment of “a single source of truth” on each individual. In April 2009 that fantasy came close to reality, when the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, published a white paper proposing a central government database tracking all electronic communications—every e-mail, every phone call, every text. Smith then backed down from a single database, but went ahead with plans to force mobile-phone companies and internet-service providers to keep these records, at a cost to the taxpayer of £2 billion.
In Bucharest Renate Weber is sipping her Starbucks in a new mall, part of the flux and contrasts between the frayed fin-de-siècle elegance of the old quarters and the areas levelled by Ceausescu in pursuance of his crazed grandiosity, complete with broad boulevards and sad-flash buildings hiding the familiar cheap-drab communist apartment blocks behind. The mall is thronged with newly middle-class Romanians using their Sunday like so many of their fellow Europeans to browse and buy the familiar Eurobrands and eat on the familiar fast-food floor under the eyes of CCTV cameras, a growing phenomenon so new that most people don’t seem to have noticed them yet. Renate Weber has. A Romanian MEP, she sits on the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee. She is alarmed at developments in Britain, which are now often used in argument against her when she raises civil-liberties concerns in Brussels. She puts down her cup: “Come on, Britain! We relied on you to develop our law in so many ways—You gave us habeas corpus, and now you’ve signed out from it. Come on!”
In his top-floor office high above Berlin, the city’s Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information, Dr Alexander Dix, talks of Britain’s “aggressive and excessive” approach to security. Germany is protected by a written constitution rigorous in such matters and a constitutional court doughty in defending it. Interestingly, some in Britain claim the credit belongs to the British lawyers who helped draft the constitution after the second world war. This is not considered such a strong point in Germany, where many think it has more to do with two top surveillance societies in succession last century. But Dix, tall and gravely courteous, and, as it happens, another LSE alumnus, is not confident that any of it would help withstand calls for stricter security if Germany experienced its own 9/11. This, he says, recalling the “understandable but hysterical” reaction in the United States, is a “sad but realistic” argument. Europe as a whole, he says, is tending towards greater surveillance.
Some of the thinking appears in a recent report from the Informal High Level Advisory Group on the Future of European Home Affairs Policy, or more shortly, if no less grandly, the Future Group. Thus a policy paper presented to the group by the Portuguese presidency of the EU Council: “Every object the individual uses, every transaction they make and almost everywhere they go will create a detailed digital record. This will generate a wealth of information for public security organisations, and create huge opportunities for more effective and productive public security efforts.”
Tony Bunyan of Statewatch, which monitors civil liberties in Europe, points out that biometric-passport fingerprinting is now taking place across Europe, and that mandatory retention of the communications data of the EU’s 450m citizens—first proposed by Britain—has been extended this year from telephone to internet usage. This, he says, combined with other data held by the state or gathered from non-state sources (tax, employment, bank details, credit-card usage, criminal record, health records, travel history, social-networking groups, etc), will give instant access to “a frighteningly detailed picture of each individual’s everyday life”.
The Future Group meetings were co-chaired by Franco Frattini, then interior minister for the Council Presidency and vice-chair of the European Commission, now foreign minister in Silvio Berlusconi’s government. “There is a need”, he said, “to overcome the traditional dogma of seeing collective security and individual freedom as two opposed concepts which exclude each other. Individual rights can only flourish in an atmosphere of collective security.” This no doubt explains the thinking of a new and unabashedly oxymoronic European concept, the principle of availability, under which the existence of information allows access to it.
Siegfried Reiprich’s office in Berlin is also on the top floor, but not so modern, high nor central. It is in the Hohenschönhausen district of the former east Berlin, along wide, bare boulevards and among brutalist apartment blocks. Until 1990 this site was a blank on East German maps: it is the old Stasi prison, now a museum, with Reiprich as its deputy director, and the curious filing in to gaze at the punishment cells in the basement. But Reiprich takes a keen interest in the state surveillance of the present as well as the past. He sees democratic governments moving into as many areas as undemocratic ones, not so much out of evil intent as the natural tendency of bureaucracy to record and control. “The bureaucrat just loves to observe people,” he says. “I’m a little bit more sensitive about these things maybe, because I was watched by the Stasi for 14 years.”
In Manchester I watch the man as he fumbles in his pocket, rolls a cigarette and lights it. He is young, thin, and seems nervous. He also seems oblivious to the camera through which I am watching him. He is outside, in the city centre; I am in front of a bank of screens, at the NCP car park. This is the control centre for Manchester’s CCTV camera surveillance operation: five operators controlling over 250 cameras, covering public spaces throughout the greater Manchester area 24 hours a day. One of the operators had noticed something unusual about our man, but his suspicions, honed by hours of watching street activity, were soon allayed, and his attentions turned elsewhere. The Manchester CCTV operation is run by the local authority in partnership with NCP. At one end of the screens, an operator is observing the car park. A police officer is on shift for referrals for action. The operation has had its successes: nearly 50 football hooligans rampaging in the city centre before last year’s UEFA cup final between Rangers and Zenit St Petersburg have been identified; mobile wireless cameras have assisted in a successful police operation against gangs in Moss Side.
It is not always so exciting. The operator showed me his computerised log of recent incidents: a man on a garage forecourt looking at the camera, a group of youths on bicycles, someone acting suspiciously here, a shoplifter being brought out of a shop there. Kate Rennicks, the centre’s manager, is keen to stress that CCTV is there “to improve the quality of life, not just to catch criminals”. The cameras are alert to fly tipping, traffic congestion, illegal street traders. “We want to be the fourth emergency service, watching out for the people of Manchester,” says Rennicks. She also thinks this collection of functions and separation of powers between council and police is the proper model for CCTV, allowing checks and balances. Certainly, to the observer, the operation smacks more of the familiar British piecemeal pragmatism than any sinister desire for control–more Mainwaring than Machiavelli.
But that, say the critics of CCTV, is the problem: the House of Lords constitutional committee recently noted that there was no regulatory framework for adequate protections against invasion of privacy by CCTV. No one even knows how many cameras there are in Britain. The best guess is over 4m. CCTV is reckoned to operate in around 500 British towns and cities, as against 50 in Italy, 11 in Austria, and one in Norway. The French public was initially much opposed: more than 300 of their cities now have CCTV. Only 30 German cities have it, but Alexander Dix says that more and more are converting. Professor Clive Norris, head of the department of sociological studies at Sheffield University, thinks public funding explains much of the difference: during the 1990s roughly 75% of the Home Office crime-prevention budget was spent on installing CCTV, even though no one can be sure that it works: “The primary justification for CCTV is the reduction of crime. There has been a singular failure to produce evidence that it has achieved that.” Several senior police officers are on record as agreeing; as does the 2005 report produced by Martin Gill and Angela Spriggs, of Leicester University, for the Home Office: “The majority of the schemes evaluated did not reduce crime and even where there was a reduction this was mostly not due to CCTV...there was a lack of realism about what could be expected from CCTV. In short, it was oversold—by successive governments—as the answer to crime problems.”
Norris quotes case studies in Australia and the United States showing CCTV’s paltry success in leading to prosecutions. Police hours spent going through the tapes must also be considered. He cites other research showing that improving street lighting “seems to be a rather more effective form of prevention”. Meanwhile, the hunt for all the identified Manchester hooligans is still continuing, a year later.
Despite all this, the watching grows, a first-thought, tick-in-the-box panacea, in classrooms, on aircraft, in pubs, record, record, record. The EU has plans for every car in Europe to emit tracking signals. In Britain cameras fitted with automatic numberplate-recognition technology are now able to record 50m cars a day, feeding a database used by the police. This, as Norris points out, has had hardly any parliamentary scrutiny. And, as Alexander Dix confirms, the entire system would be illegal in Germany, where such cameras would only be allowed for specific investigations. Work is also being carried out into systems that can pick out faces, and the way we walk, which is more difficult to conceal.
There remains, though, the problem of mistaken identification, which, under the iron laws of statistics, will arise with even the most efficient system available when applied to tens of millions. As Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, says: “Even if some may be caught, there will always be relatively large numbers of false negatives—real terrorists who are not identified as such, and unacceptably high numbers of false positives: large numbers of innocent people who are subjected to surveillance, harassment, discrimination, arrest—or worse. Freedom is being given up without gaining security.”
(I thought of Mr Hammarberg at Berlin’s Tegel Airport as I made my way back through the departures gate, under orders to buy two plastic bags into which I was to place my toiletries and herbal tonic if I wanted to take them into the cabin. What, I asked the security staff, was the point of this? They didn’t know, they said, cheerfully. Having now spent some time trying to find out, I sympathise, and direct them to EU memo/06/03 dated 05/10/2006.)
And this is before you consider other major flaws which bigger and bigger databases will only exacerbate: the periodical loss of confidential data concerning large proportions of the population and the inefficient administration of systems already outdated when installed. Further, the Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR) recently reported that a quarter of all the largest British public-sector database projects were fundamentally flawed and clearly breached European data-protection laws. And yet the projects—and the spending—go on. “The UK public sector spends over £16 billion a year on IT,” reported the FIPR. “Over £100 billion in spending is planned for the next five years, and even the government cannot provide an accurate figure for the cost of its ‘Transformational Government’ programme. Yet only about 30% of government IT projects succeed.”
In Berlin Alexander Dix talked about how a belief had been created that “by storing large amounts of data you can actually solve the problem of terrorism—that’s the basic illusion.” He quoted Joseph Weizenbaum, the computer scientist who fled Nazi Germany as a boy: “The act of automating doesn’t solve problems, it just automates them.” In London the former director of public prosecutions, Ken Macdonald, was just as pithy: “the idea of total security is a paranoid fantasy”.
In Bucharest Stelian Tanase, the Romanian writer and film-maker whose book “At Home There’s Only Speaking in a Whisper” is the classic account of being surveilled by Ceausescu’s secret police, was sitting at home, a faithfully furnished Edwardian villa in a suburban street of varying fortunes and sizes of fierce dog. Tanase was not whispering: he now hosts a Romanian political chat show. He was considering human dignity. He had flown recently, too, from Paris, and had seen a fellow passenger being subjected to a particularly thorough body search. “If you want to protect the lives of passengers”, he said, “it is not necessary to humiliate them. If I accept that now in the airport, tomorrow it could be in the street, then in the home.”
It’s a measure of our new sensitivities that someone with direct experience of a harsher regime should be the one to point out the invasiveness of something that has become commonplace. This docile acceptance of the primacy of security concerns also goes some way to explaining why the opposition to these new restrictions on old freedoms has struggled to make much impact, especially in Britain, where the first reaction to most things is to form a queue.
This is an age which happily invades its own privacy. On Facebook and Twitter, people tell you their movements and even their moods. Many of them will do anything to appear on reality TV programmes, on which they will do anything, including, in the famous case of poor Jade Goody, dying. And attempts by the British courts to introduce a concept of privacy advocated by the European-inspired and admirably intentioned Human Rights Act are resisted by powerful newspapers which hold they have a right to expose private lives for the general moral good.
Again, the features of the surveillance society are diverse, and not considered by all to be equal. Peter Wilby, the former editor of the New Statesman, recently came up with a handy barricades barometer in the Guardian: “My outrage on civil liberties issues is on a sliding scale. At the top...[is]...the possibility that the British security services, and even ministers, colluded with torture and extraordinary rendition. Somewhere in the middle come databases of e-mails and website visits. At the bottom—not outraging me at all, if I am honest—come DNA databases and identity cards...”
Wilby’s remarks were directed at the Convention on Modern Liberty, a remarkable gathering of the liberty-vigilant and surveillance-concerned in London and other British cities this year. The convention was the inspiration of Henry Porter, the novelist, commentator and conductor of what has seemed at times a one-man media campaign, aided by an enviable gift for encapsulating outrage: “It’s no exaggeration to say that unless we involve ourselves in the political process, ours will be the first generation in centuries of British history to hand on a less free society than the one we inherited.” It was addressed by nearly 100 speakers of every persuasion with the exception of the Dick Cheney Fan Club and the Association of Wiretappers. Timothy Garton Ash, the writer and expert on eastern Europe who has noted that the former East Germany is now more free than Britain, warned of the further threat from the re-emergent Russia and China and their human-rights record. What happened in Britain, he added, had a special role because of the disproportionate prominence afforded by its history and language: “The battle for Britain”, he said, echoing Renate Weber in Bucharest, “is not just a British battle: the world is watching us.”
Lord Bingham, the former Lord Chief Justice, was not so instantly quotable (although he apologised for it when I asked for a line); but this, from his speech, is definingly cogent: “The acquisition of great powers of the state should rather prompt a principled determination to ensure that the permissible exercise of such powers is strictly defined, regulated and monitored so as to guarantee that any intrusion into the liberty and privacy of the individual is fully justified by an obviously superior community interest.”
There were also attempts to explain the government’s motivation. “Why do governments do this?” asked David Davis, the Conservative MP and former shadow home secretary, who stood down from his Commons seat to fight, and win, a by-election on these issues: “Are [they] going on an exercise to look tough on terror and make the opposition parties look weak? Of course, it is partly that, but it is also based on something else...What ministers do is reach out in desperation for the nearest glittering toy, the nearest piece of magic that will solve their problem...Robert Heinlein once said that to a primitive people any sufficiently advanced technology appears magic. And there is no more primitive group of people than ministers in a funk.”
Later, I approached the Home Office, wondering if I might be pointed towards a summary of the government’s position on surveillance and its responses to criticisms. They said there wasn’t one. So I rely instead on an article by Jack Straw, the secretary of state for justice, in the Guardian the day before the convention. Talk of a police state, he said, was “daft scaremongering”. He claimed credit for introducing the Human Rights Act. He acknowledged that the government had not always got the balance right between security and liberty, but “Those who cast myself and my colleagues as Orwellian drones engaged in some awful conspiracy planned in Whitehall basements not only overlook all this government’s achievements, they cheapen the important debate about getting the balance right so that a very important freedom, that to live without fear in an atmosphere of tolerance and respect, is nurtured and protected.” If the people were displeased with the government, they could vote it out; but none of his voters had been writing to him about a police state or a surveillance society.
On the streets of Manchester, it seemed that Straw had a point. I talked to people beneath the gaze of Kate Rennicks’s cameras and near the site of the Peterloo massacre in 1819, when the cavalry charged a crowd of some 60,000 demanding reform, killing 15, injuring more than 500. “I’m not worried,” said Paula, a travel consultant. “I haven’t really thought about it, but the cameras do more good than harm.” Oliver, a student, said CCTV “makes you feel safer”. He was uncertain about ID cards, feeling that neither side had made its case. Joanne, a legal assistant, was conscious of being watched, but didn’t feel threatened by it: “If you’ve got nothing to hide, it doesn’t matter.” Rhys, an IT executive, was concerned but saw no sign of a mass movement. Mr and Mrs Ahmed were fine with the cameras, happy with records of e-mails and phone calls being kept, but not sure about ID cards. Sabina, Sarah and Aisha, students from Blackburn, Jack Straw’s constituency, were concerned about cost and the interlinked nature of all this gathering and watching, and wary of the government, but not yet ready to take to the streets. “If you’ve nothing to hide, why should you be worried?” I realised later that after half an hour or so, I had forgotten that I was being watched; which was a pity, as I should have liked to wave goodbye.
At Checkpoint Charlie, Alexander, smartly dressed, is on his way to work. The Berlin wall, of course, came down 20 years ago: the checkpoint is now a museum to its memory. An installation features two giant photographs, one of an American GI, one of a Russian soldier. They are mirrored by students in uniform, posing for photographs with the tourists, as fake as the replica checkpoint itself and the visas for sale. Some Germans object to the Disneyfication of a division that cost more than 100 lives and stood for 28 years, but, in contrast to the new Potsdamer Platz, a gleaming, towering tribute to reunification, the Checkpoint area still has a barren, wasted air, and the hoardings are dignified by an exhibition of moving testimonies and photos of those touched by the wall and the baleful paranoia of the German Democratic Republic. “We don’t have as many cameras as you do in London,” says Alexander, “I don’t feel I am being watched.” No, it’s not a debate among his friends.
“I think it’s very good,” says Matthias, from Augsburg, a social worker. “It shows that they can protect us from people who don’t do the right things.” Fevzi, an IT worker, says: “To be honest, they can watch. It’s important if something happens to me. I trust the German state. I’m from Turkey: Germany is 100 times better than Turkey on these things.” Some teenage schoolchildren from Hanover have just been to Siegfried Reiprich’s Stasi Museum. Are they worried at all about their government watching and listening? “No.” One of them says, “If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to worry about.”
That line again. And Jack Straw takes credit for the introduction and operation (praised by Alexander Dix) of that legal embodiment of nothing to hide, the Freedom of Information Act. But as the satirist Rory Bremner says, it makes you wonder why Straw has used the veto contained in the act to stop us seeing cabinet minutes on the decision to invade Iraq.
At Piata Revolutiei, I talk to Mircea, a student, who says: “The government doesn’t interfere too much—in my opinion, it doesn’t help us enough.” She and her boyfriend, Alex, are trying to find jobs. “We have freedom of speech, we can say what we like,” says Ciprian, a civil servant, and does, about his employers. Corina, a credit controller, thinks freedom of speech might have gone too far, and says Romania’s journalists spend too much time putting down the president and the government.
At the London convention, meanwhile, Shami Chakrabarti, the punchy director of Liberty, celebrated the European decision that the DNA database in England, Wales and Northern Ireland was wrongly storing the records of the unconvicted: “It took a European court of human rights, including Continental people with memories of the Nazis and the Stasi, to understand how dangerous that database could be.”
Up to a point. In Bucharest, as many will tell you, the people just want to forget Ceausescu. The Liberty Centre is the name of another mall (“Fuck shopping”, says another flyer. “Let’s Dance”). The young people in Piata Revolutiei said things like “Twenty years was a long time ago.” Some of them couldn’t identify the balcony the dictator had been standing on, the one from which, a little later, Stelian Tanase also exhorted the crowd, but to freedom. Renate Weber said: “I’m always surprised by how very short is the collective memory. Maybe that’s also the explanation why we accepted the Communist regime for so many years.”
In Berlin, Siegfried Reiprich explains the same unwillingness in Freudian terms, the need to push away bad memories. Some 40,000 Germans were imprisoned at Hohenschönhausen between 1945 and 1990. You can see where they were interrogated subtly and unsubtly—water torture, sensory deprivation, the secret policeman’s full repertoire. But the number of East Germans targeted by the Stasi was still only a tiny minority, says Reiprich, who was excluded from education, forced to work in a factory, interrogated for his dissident activities and expelled. The system, he says, worked by cracking down hard on the few dissidents, leaving the majority to a “guilt of silence’’ and the false memories that feed the phenomenon of even affectionate remembrance, the “ostalgie” celebrated in another Berlin museum. But that doesn’t explain why one of Reiprich’s guides, imprisoned himself for trying to leave East Germany, is an advocate of the security that comes with CCTV.
Others are not so sure. The Chaos Computer Club (CCC) is one of those anarchic groups with a sense of humour but serious purpose more familiar in central Europe and the west coast of America than in Britain. It’s a loose group of 5,000 of what its spokesman, Frank Rieger, who lives in Berlin, calls “hackers with a conscience”. Dedicated to the proposition that no electronic system can ever be secure, it was set up in 1981 to protect against the excesses of information technology.
At the Convention on Modern Liberty, Simon Davies of Privacy International called for more fun from an opposition that can seem a touch too worthy. “Fun”, he said, “is a profoundly radical thing—we’ve got to have fun with these buggers.” The CCC agrees: last year, it offered readers of its magazine a free fingerprint of Germany’s interior minister, Wolfgang Schauble, chief advocate of fingerprint usage in biometric passports. The thin film of Schauble’s digit—acquired from a glass at a public meeting—could be taped over the reader’s digit to perplex automatic fingerprint readers.
Simple instructions on how to do it yourself are available on the CCC’s website, along with how to make a “Zapper” which will destroy radio frequency identification (RFID) chips, the surveillance tool of choice for those who wish to track your shopping habits, dustbin usage and movements, at home and abroad (they are those shiny things in the new passports). Just take a disposable camera, remove the flash, connect the capacitor to a coil, charge it, press the button, and the RFID is destroyed. Frank says you can achieve the same effect by putting your passport very briefly in a microwave, but doesn’t recommend it, on account of the burn-marks.
One recalls, though, the late Peter Cook’s comments about satirical cabaret in Berlin doing so much to prevent the rise of Hitler. The CCC also regularly presents papers to Germany’s constitutional court in cases concerning electronic surveillance. The court has ruled that clandestine infiltration of spyware onto suspects’ computers by government agencies requires stringent circumstances and a judge’s warrant. “A German’s computer is his castle,” says Frank Rieger (an Englishman will find the RIPA allows the covert capture of his, without a judge’s permission). But pressure is building for a relaxation of the spyware restrictions, and there is another legal battle going on over the easing of an absolute ban on monitoring journalists and other professionals. Rieger doubts the ability of hackers to frustrate and ridicule state surveillance. The state has superior resources: “It has the longer breath.”
What is needed, he says, is the development of a conscience by the IT experts working for the private companies who so successfully lobby them. He wants people on “the dark side” to leak their secrets: “While it certainly would be better if the surveillance industry died from lack of talent, the more realistic approach is to keep talking to those of us who sold their heads. We need to generate a culture that might be compared with the sale of indulgences in the dark ages: you may be working on the wrong side of the barricade, but we would be willing to trade private moral absolution for knowledge. Tell us what is happening there, what the capabilities are, what the plans are, which gross scandals have been hidden. To be honest, there is very little that we know.”
So far the leading comment from the IT industry comes from Scott McNealy, of Sun Microsystems, who announced after 9/11: “Privacy is dead—get over it.” So Rieger is not holding his breath, particularly when a global recession and climate change will combine to put more pressure on European governments to resist migrants clamouring to get in.
There are signs of changing attitudes. In the face of the growing opposition, and the economic downturn, the British government has been forced to think again, if slowly, about extended use of RIPA powers and widespread data collecting and sharing. Comfortable assurances and assumptions have been vividly eroded by some high-profile instances of violent action by British policemen handling political and environmental protest. As Henry Porter says: “Arresting protesters before they can protest and battering those who do—is it any surprise when a police force starts showing the same lack of respect for liberties as the government it serves?”
In Germany, too, a series of scandals involving large companies spying on their employees has caused outrage, while the use of spyware has seen protests and T-shirts inscribed “Stasi 2.0”. In Britain, the reaction to unwitting appearances on Google’s Street View has shown that an unquestioning acceptance of cameras is not yet hard-wired, while a vigorous grassroots campaign by the No2ID group has helped convert 80% public support for identity cards to a near 50-50 split. Both the main opposition parties are against them; the Liberal Democrats also promise multiple repeal of surveillance legislation.
There were hopes, too, that the leaking of the home secretary’s expenses claim revealing her husband’s taste in home entertainment—two porn films, charged to the taxpayer—might concentrate minds as ministers consider how much of our privacy to invade. If not, there are regular intrusions into government computers by hackers. On the European black market, it is said that you can get computer and phone records on anyone for $5,000. Passwords and credit-card details come a little cheaper: around 75 cents.
In the end, the explosion in electronic surveillance should be seen as another example of humanity’s search for certainty in an existence by definition uncertain, and often disobligingly complex. In Romania, Stelian Tanase will tell you that the superior protections for privacy come not from the newly libertarian instincts of Romania’s politicians (former Communists have remained prominent and in power), but because “they are very careful of their right to be corrupt”. Tanase may no longer be whispering, but he and others are adamant that illegal phone-tapping goes on in defiance of the requirement of a judge’s warrant. And he is, after all, an expert; and he has his own CCTV cameras outside his home.
In one of the satellite buildings constructed at the same time as the mighty Madman’s House, Alina Bica, secretary of state at the ministry of justice, is equally adamant that there is no illegal phone tapping. Mrs Bica, a charming former public prosecutor (post-1990), accepts that the balance required by civil liberties makes her fight against corruption and organised crime more difficult: among other things, it has prevented British-style control orders in Romania’s new criminal code. “Actually,” says Bica with a smile, “I would like to be a prosecutor in Great Britain. It would be so much easier than here.”
Want to know the numbers? How many days suspects can be detained without charge? The cost of widespread CCTV use to the public? The number of DNA profiles on Britain’s DNA database? See them here.
(Charles Nevin is a former feature writer on the Daily Telegraph and the author of "Book of Jacks", published by Mainstream.)