Creepy or Creeping? Or Both?

A few years ago, Ray Corrigan suggested to me that the “surveillance state” would most likely be manifest through the everyday mundane actions of petty bureaucrats and administrators, as well as the occasional bitter petty-Hitler having a bad day.

Ray has a systems background, and systems theories were one of my early passions (I started reading General Systems Theory books whilst still at school), so I suspect we both tend to see things from a variety of systems perspectives.

This means that we see the everyday drip, drip, drip of new technologies, whether electronic, digital or legal (because I take legal and contractual systems to be technologies too) not as independent initiatives but as potential components of a wider system that allows these apparently innocuous separate components to be combined or composed together to create something new.

(Inventing a new thing in and of itself is not that interesting. There are many more opportunities for combining things that already exist in new ways than there are for inventing new things”out of nowhere”.)

For example, today a news story has been doing the rounds repeating claims that the DWP are requesting video surveillance materials from leisure centres as part of fraud investigations [DWP: No denial of  blanket harvesting of CCTV or Fake-Friending of Disabled People]. It is clear that the DWP do make use of video surveillance footage (just do a news search on disability DWP video) but not the extent to which they do or are legally allowed to request footage from third parties.

The story reminded me about some digging I did a few years ago around DWP using the opportunity of police roadside traffic checks for fraud trawling [All I Did Was Go to a Carol Service…]. It’s maybe worth revisiting that, and updating it with examples relating to requests for video surveillance footage.

What’s notable, perhaps, is the way in which laws are written that afford enforcers a legal basis for some activity that, when the law is originally written, is apparently innocuous, and only offensive to creeped out paranoid science fiction activists imagining what the application of the law might mean, whilst at the same time lighting up the eyes of techies who see the law as an enabler of a particular, technologically mediated action that could be “really cool”.

“Cool, we could use smartphone fingerprint readers for handheld fingerprint checks anywhere and it’d be really cool…” Etc.

Which is not totally science fiction. Because if you recall, UK police started using handheld fingerprint readers for identification purposes as part of “everyday” stop and search activities  earlier this year [Police in West Yorkshire can now use mobile phones to check your fingerprints on the spot] . You can read a Home Office press release about the trial here: Police trial new Home Office mobile fingerprint technology.

Amidst the five minute flurry of reactionary “this is not acceptable behaviour” tweets, Andrew Keogh pointed out that [t]his isn’t new law, it has been on the Statute Book for some time, arising from an update to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, 1984 (PACE) by the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. My naive reading of that amendment is that the phrases “A constable may take a person’s fingerprints without the appropriate consent” and “Fingerprints taken … may be checked against other fingerprints to which the person seeking to check has access” put in place the legal basis for procedures that are perhaps only now becoming possible through the widespread availability of handheld, networked devices.

One wonders how much other law is already in-place that a creative administrator or bureaucrat might pick up on and “reimagine” using some newly available technology.

At the same time that legislation might incorporate “sleeper” clauses that can be powerfully invoked or enabled through the availability of new technologies, the law also fails to keep up with the behaviour of the large web companies (that were once small web companies).

I was never convinced by Google’s creative interpretations of copyright law on the one hand, or its “we’re a platform not a media company” mantra (often combined with US  constitutional “free speech” get out clauses). It will be interesting to see which one they deploy against the AgeID requirements for viewing online pornography in the UK which is to be regulated by the BBFC  (background: DCMS Age Verification for pornographic material online impact assessment, 2016 as well as the current UK gov Internet Safety Strategy activity). Because Google and Bing are, of course, pr0n search engines with content preview availability.

On the topic of identity creep, another government initiative announced some time ago (Voter ID pilot to launch in local elections [Sept 2017] had a more formal announcement earlier this week: Voter ID pilot schemes – May, 2018. For a reaction that summarises my own feelings, see eg James Ball, Electoral fraud is incredibly rare. The Tories’ ID trial is an unsavoury attempt at voter suppression. When you take the time out to go and vote, just remember to take your ID with you. And if you need to get some ID, make sure you do it well in advance of the election day on which you’ll need it.

As with many technologically led, “digital first” initiatives, an anti-pattern approach loved by certain public bodies as a way of making services inaccessible to those most likely to either require them or benefit from them, I can’t help get the feeling that technology is increasingly seen by those who know how to use it as an instrument for abuse, rather than as an enabler. Which really sucks.

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

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