net.wars: Fusion cuisine and the Chamber of Legislative Horrors

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 02 March 2007

So this is the pitch: Do you still recognize the country you grew up in?

Wendy M Grossman

In Britain, the home of habeus corpus and the Magna Carta, the London 2012 Olympics are serving as the excuse to give police powers to inspect postal packages for drugs, track individuals through the use of CCTV and electronic travel passes, and identify suspects through their relatives' DNA stored among the 3 million samples held in the nation's DNA database. In the US, it's now extremely difficult to travel, even on a Greyhound bus, without presenting photo ID, a government agency maintains a list of who is not allowed to fly, and your most private medical records are open to inspection by a raft of people from medical personnel to insurance companies and prospective employers.

The Australian Parliament has a compendium of anti-terrorism legislation from Australia and elsewhere, much of it passed since 2001.

It seems as though in every country surveillance is on the rise, backed by legislation granting more and more powers to law enforcement.

What's it like in your country? The 2007 Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference wants to know. Send your worst surveillance legislation examples, and we will forward them to CFP. And how about a generous prize to the best? Press the contact button now! Yes, act now. You have nothing to lose but your homes, jobs, freedom?

Seriously, do get in touch if you want to hand over examples. The losers will be featured somewhere on the CFP program.

About that reference to the 2012 Olympics. It's generally true that the World Trade Center/Pentagon attacks of September 2001 gave security forces everywhere a chance to dust off the failed proposals they had in their bottom drawers that no politicians would ever accept previously and get them through before the first shock faded.

Every subsequent event ? such as the July 7 London bombs, or last summer's mixed-liquids-on-a-plane madness ? has fueled another round of Add the Police Powers. But the 2012 Olympics? They're harmless, right? (Except for the ever-mounting bill; the Evening Standard this week put it at £10 billion, four times the original estimate, and counting. For the record, I was always against the Olympics coming to London.)

Not so much harmless. And they're almost open about it.

The Telegraph discovered a leaked memo in late January that specifically suggested that public support for increased surveillance (scanning postal packages, location tracking via enhanced CCTV, mobile phones, and smart travel cards) could be increased by piloting them during the Olympics. The documents, prepared for the Number 10 Policy Review Working Group on Security, Crime, and Justice, also revealed that the DNA database that Blair is so proud of and its 3 million samples could be used for familial tracing. Your DNA may not be on the database, but if your father's is, then identifying a familiar connection might help lead the police to you. Oh, yeah, and while we're at it, why don't we conceal X-ray cameras in lampposts everywhere?

I know how much this sounds like bad science fiction, and since the X-ray camera bit came from The Sun, who knows? And the fact that something is being discussed doesn't mean they won't see sense and not implement it or that the technology will work in the first place. But these are thoughts that only a few years ago would have been unthinkable, and now they're not only being thought they're being outlined in policy memos.

And even that is relatively trivial compared to part 2A of the Serious Crime Bill, which creates Serious Crime Prevention Orders, to be granted by the High Court or Crown Court, that will grant the power to do data matching between, from the sounds of it, any and all data held about you anywhere ? within different government departments, outside it in commercial databases, travel data, ISP logs, whatever. The bill is at the committee stage in the Lords but has yet to be introduced in the Commons. A friend of mine has taken to calling this scenario "data fusion".

What this all signifies is very precisely and carefully laid out in a just-published book, Illusions of Security by Canadian author Maureen Webb.

In it, Webb makes the carefully documented case that in the years since 2001 a massive shift has taken place from reactive policing to preemption of risk (which seems a logical extension of the sort of nervousness that requires warning labels on bags of marbles). She primarily writes about Canada and the US, but she could be writing about many other countries: you could be guilty at any time and so you should be watched, just in case.

Instead of giving us greater security, Webb argues that increased surveillance is counter-productive because it alienates the very communities we most need help from ? and that in fact it makes us all more insecure because our lives could be abruptly turned upside down at any moment. Whose life doesn't look suspicious if it's examined in great detail?

So: send your examples and I'll enter them in the Chamber of Legislative Horrors contest. You could be a loser!


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) (but please turn off HTML).