SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 116 - March 2008

Big Brother Britain

Per capita, Britain boasts the most CCTV cameras, the biggest DNA database and some of the widest powers of communications interception of any western power. Recent laws, many introduced in the open-ended ‘war on terror’, give the security forces draconian powers of arrest and detention. MANNY THAIN reports on the ominous rise of the surveillance state.

WE ARE ALL familiar with the dystopian futures served up by science fiction, where cutting-edge technology is harnessed by shadowy authoritarian regimes to maintain complete control. What is disturbing is just how familiar that looks today. Britain’s ‘information commissioner’, Richard Thomas, agrees: "Two years ago I warned that we were in danger of sleepwalking into a surveillance society. Today I fear that we are in fact waking up to a surveillance society that is already all around us". (The Guardian, 2 November 2006)

Five million CCTV cameras keep watch in England and Wales, nearly one for every ten inhabitants. Each one of us can be caught on 300 cameras a day. In the name of fighting terrorism, crime, fraud, drugs, tax evasion, speeding, unlawful parking and fly-tipping, 800 organisations, including the police, Inland Revenue, prisons, local and central government demanded 253,000 intrusions on privacy – including phone-taps, email and snail-mail – in 2006. The monitoring organisation, Privacy International, gives Britain the worst record in Europe, putting it on a par with ‘endemic surveillance societies’, such as Russia and Singapore. (The Guardian, 6 February 2008)

This represents a qualitative change. In the past, intelligence gathering and surveillance were aimed at specific targets – individuals or movements – or, if more generalised, could be sustained for a limited time. Today’s technological advances give states and agencies the potential to blanket cover an entire population, even to develop international coverage.

Britain’s DNA database, set up in 1995, was the first and is by far the biggest in the world for the size of the population. Excluding Scotland, it holds DNA samples of over four million individuals, 7% of the population, including one in three black males and nearly 900,000 youth aged between ten and 17. Most EU countries have no more than 100,000 profiles. The police routinely take a DNA sample from anyone they stop. According to the Nuffield Bioethics Committee, the DNA database grows by 40,000 samples every month.

The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2007 extended the right of tax and customs officials to intercept phone calls, emails and letters, to bug homes and private vehicles. Formerly, their use of those techniques was restricted to criminal investigations into drugs and guns. In Britain, surveillance interception has never required a warrant. Only the approval of the home secretary was and is necessary.

Nothing to fear

A BBC TV Panorama programme last September reported that two-thirds of the population would favour a law requiring that everyone’s DNA should be stored. It is easy to see why. DNA is portrayed as a failsafe method of tracking down criminals, and who opposes less crime?

Yet, it is less reliable than most people think. Although it almost never provides a false negative reading, it can produce false ‘positives’. Professor Allan Jamieson, director of the Forensic Institute in Glasgow, points out that a person’s DNA can be transferred to a place or item that he or she has never seen or touched. (The Economist, 27 September 2007) This risk is exacerbated with the development of ‘low copy number’ detection, in which a single cell can be enough to produce a DNA profile.

On top of that, Britain’s National Policing Improvement Agency is responsible for IDENT1, the database holding seven million sets of fingerprints and other biometric details used to search for matches from crime scenes. As with DNA, many of the prints are from people with no criminal record or are yet to be matched to a named individual.

The National Health Service database, which will hold the records of 53 million people, can be accessed by state security services on demand. And the government is developing the world’s first national database for every child under 18. The potential exists for massive abuse in the wrong hands.

It is not as if the government is good at keeping data safe. Last year, the Inland Revenue lost the tax and bank details of 25 million people after it sent data-packed CDs via TNT post. When a laptop computer was lost, so were the details of more than 100,000 navy personnel. In June 2006, the Home Office admitted it had wrongly identified 2,700 people as having criminal records. The list of this type of incompetence is frighteningly long.

‘If you are innocent, you have nothing to fear’, is the authoritarian slogan. In reality, however, we are all becoming potential suspects. Who can access the data? How do we know it is accurate? Even some in authority have expressed concern. Alex Marshall, deputy chief constable of Thames Valley police, said: "Extending the taking of [DNA] samples to all offences may be perceived as indicative of the increasing criminalisation of the generally law-abiding citizen". (The Observer, 5 August 2007)

Identity crisis

IN MARCH 2006 the Identity Cards Act became law. Immigrants will be the first to carry the card, followed over the next two years by ‘key security workers’, such as airport staff, as the first registered British nationals. Home secretary, Jacqui Smith, plans to phase in the scheme to different sections of society, minimising the potential for united, mass opposition.

The government’s claim that ID cards are essential to fight terrorism is completely false. ID cards did not stop the Spanish train bombers on 11 March 2004, and would not have prevented the 7 July 2005 London transport bombers, who were British.

The biometric card will include items such as name, signature, other names you have been known by, date and place of birth, gender, where you live and have ever lived, your picture, fingerprints and iris image, residential status, national insurance, driving licence and passport numbers. It will record when your card was issued and what details you gave to get it. It will log every time it is used, leaving an audit trail to all connecting databases.

An ID card will be required to access health and social services, and to function in society generally. Fines and/or imprisonment await those who fail to register or for other ‘misuse’. According to the Home Office, 265 government departments and 44,000 accredited private-sector organisations will use it to verify people’s identity.

‘Oversight’ will be provided by a national commissioner. But he or she will have no powers over the chiefs of the security and intelligence services or any chief police officers. Welcome to Big Brother Britain.

We are told that abuse of the data is unthinkable in this ‘democratic’ country. Yet why should we trust a government which blatantly lied to us in the run-up to the Iraq war? How can we trust a system which allowed the Metropolitan police to walk away after gunning down Jean Charles de Menezes and then promoted those in charge? To give our trust to a state with such an appalling record would be a major mistake.

That is before we take into account the fact that parliamentary democracy is by no means a permanent form of state organisation. Even the most ‘democratic’ capitalist state reserves the right to declare martial law in times of social strife. If that were to happen in Britain, the mass of centralised information would become a colossal weapon of state repression.


SMITH IS ALSO boosting police stop-and-search powers. The proposals come in a review by Sir Ronnie Flanagan, former chief constable of Northern Ireland, who will recommend reductions in the use of ‘stop-and-account’ forms for ‘lesser crimes’ – shoplifting, vehicle collisions, vandalism, drink-driving, etc.

The forms were introduced after the McPherson report in 1999 which branded the Metropolitan police ‘institutionally racist’ after its failure to bring to trial the killers of Stephen Lawrence in a racially motivated attack. The mass outrage provoked by Stephen’s murder compelled the state to introduce some limited measures of accountability. Now they are being clawed back.

The review will propose that the police use BlackBerry mobiles to transmit brief stop records to police stations. Borough commanders will be allowed to introduce random stop and searches, a return to the hated ‘sus laws’ of the early 1980s, when suspicion of illegal intent was enough to stop and search someone. In practice, this already happens. This move officially sanctions it. Widespread use of sus laws inflamed volatile inner-cities, which exploded in riots in Bristol, Brixton, Toxteth and elsewhere. Tory leader, David Cameron, backs the measures, competing with New Labour over who is ‘toughest on crime’.

According to ministry of justice figures for 2004/05 (which do not quite add up but give an indication of the situation), white people accounted for nearly 75% of stop and searches while making up 91.3% of the population; black people were 14% and 2.8%; Asians, 7.5% and 4.1%; ethnicity was not clearly denoted in the remainder. Therefore, black and Asian people were six times more likely to be stopped than white people.

Chief superintendent, Ali Dizaei, president of the National Black Police Association, warned: "The reintroduction of such draconian powers will do untold damage to police and community relations and damage the fight against terrorism at a time when we most need the support of all communities". (The Guardian, 31 January) That gives the lie to the claim that the ‘war on terror’ is the prime motivation behind strengthening police powers.

Flanagan’s review rejects the idea of communities electing police commissioners or authorities, which could have represented a small degree of accountability over the police.

Lack of evidence

BRITAIN IS ONE of the few countries which do not allow the use of intercept evidence in court. The security services have always opposed it for fear it would expose their methods and give too much information to the defence. Recordings from free-standing bugs are admissible, as are recordings where one of the speakers is an undercover cop, and phone-tap evidence gathered abroad.

The civil rights group, Liberty, calls for the use of intercept evidence on the grounds that it would provide defendants with the evidence against them which is currently kept secret. Liberty also argues that it offers an alternative to lengthy pre-charge detention (up to 28 days, with government plans to raise that to 42 days). That might sound reasonable. And moves are underway to allow its use. However, the government set up another review to look into the issue, under the auspices of the privy council, an exclusive and unelected body of former prime ministers, former heads of the civil service, judiciary and security forces – the elite of the British ruling class.

On 6 February, prime minister, Gordon Brown, echoed its recommendations. Agencies would not be compelled to use in court the material gathered. Security services and police would have a veto on evidence being passed on to most defence lawyers. The amount of transcribed material provided to the defence would be limited. State forces, therefore, will be able to use intercept evidence to strengthen their case, while providing a minimal amount of information to defendants.


IN JULY 2006, five young British Muslim men were jailed under section 57 of the Terrorism Act 2007, which makes it an offence to have books or items useful for a terrorist. They had downloaded Islamist material from the internet. The prosecution claimed they planned to fight in Afghanistan. Their defence was that they were engaged in ideological research.

On 13 February this year, the court of appeal overturned the decision, Lord Chief Justice Phillips saying that "[Section] 57 must be interpreted in a way that requires a direct connection between the object possessed and the act of terrorism". (The Guardian, 14 February) It is an important judgment, but these men spent over 18 months in prison, branded as terrorists.

There appears to have been no physical evidence for the prosecution’s claims. The appeal judge even said the case should never have been brought in the first place. It bears all the hallmarks of the thought-crime in George Orwell’s 1984. But would the outcome always be so fortunate? Can we rely on a judge to make the ‘right’ decision?

Although the judiciary jealously guards for itself a certain independence from political interference, it is one of the key guardians of the capitalist system, defending the interests of the ruling class. We are moving into a period when we can expect more intense struggle, provoked by intensified exploitation as a result of economic crisis and increased social tensions. Inevitably, workers and other sections of society will come into confrontation with state forces. Laws introduced on the pretext of ‘fighting terrorism’ can and will be used to clamp down on the workers’ movement. In the 1970s and 1980s, Irish trade union activists were rounded up under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, brought in to combat Irish Republican Army terrorism. And the Guildford Four, Birmingham Six and many other innocent people spent years in prison, falsely convicted of terrorism.

Bugging MPs

GIVEN THE GREEN light by the ‘war on terror’, sections of the state clearly feel they can do what they want. It has been reported, for example, that the police bugged conversations at Woodhill prison, Milton Keynes, between a New Labour MP, Sadiq Khan, and Babar Ahmad, one of Khan’s constituents. Ahmad had been arrested in December 2003 by the Metropolitan police on allegations that he was helping to finance terrorists. He was released after six days. In August 2004 he was detained on a US extradition warrant and has been held ever since. The bugging in May 2005 and June 2006 had been carried out by Thames Valley police on the request of the Met.

Eavesdropping on MPs breaches the ‘Wilson doctrine’ – brought in by former Labour prime minister Harold Wilson in 1966 – that constituents should be able to speak to MPs in confidence. Although this specified phone-tapping, the spirit of the doctrine could be said to apply to other forms of electronic surveillance.

The bugging was carried out by detective sergeant Mark Kearney, who claims he was part of an attempt to influence a Royal Commission report. According to Kearney, the aim was to ensure that if suspects exercise their right to remain silent in custody it should impact negatively on their cases in court. (Independent on Sunday, 10 February)

Kearney has been accused subsequently of wilful misconduct in public office for leaking case details to a local newspaper – which was what he says his superiors expected him to do. He will face trial with three others, including Sally Murrer, a local journalist. She has been charged with aiding and abetting misconduct in public office, which carries unlimited imprisonment. They are being scapegoated to divert attention from the architects of the scandal.

Some commentators complain that it is unjust for MPs to get preferential treatment. Given the rotten nature of British politics – cash-for-honours and MPs channelling thousands of pounds to family members, etc – this resonates strongly with the general public. MPs are generally and rightly despised.

But, with New Labour firmly ensconced in the capitalist camp, this case is another reason why a new workers’ party is an absolute necessity. Genuine working-class representatives need to be protected as much as possible from the prying eyes and ears of the capitalist state. Such safeguards help the working class combat exploitation, discrimination and report miscarriages of justice, etc.

The Khan/Ahmad case is not only about bugging MPs. Over the weekend of 9/10 February, British newspapers alleged that hundreds of lawyers have been bugged while visiting prisoners, including at least ten at Woodhill jail. The court of appeal in 2005 ruled that this seriously undermines the rule of law, and that the trials affected should be halted and any convictions overturned.

When Jack Straw was foreign secretary he was in no doubt about this principle. An editorial in The Guardian (12 February) recalled what he said a few years ago: "There could and would be no effective relationship [between a lawyer and client] if the advice… was disclosable to the other party. If that were so, our system of justice as a whole would suffer". Straw was applying that principle falsely to keep secret from the British people the attorney general’s advice on Iraq, before the invasion of that country. Now, as justice minister, he seems strangely silent on the subject.

Democratic rights

OVER RECENT YEARS, we have seen a frontal attack on democratic rights. This was facilitated by mass revulsion at the horrific terrorist attacks in the US on 11 September 2001. The killing of 3,000 people, many of them working-class, in the World Trade Center twin towers, has been used by governments around the world to increase their grip on power. As Tony Blair said at the time, ‘9/11 changes everything’.

The onslaught has been made possible by the capitulation to capitalism of the leaders of former social-democratic parties, such as the Labour Party. Blair, Brown and company have moved so far to the right that even the Tories criticise them for trampling on democratic rights! Of course, such criticism is totally hypocritical as the Tories in office would be just as authoritarian. It is a marker, however, of the extent of New Labour’s betrayal of the working class.

In combination with amazing advances in information technology, data storage and analysis, these laws give the modern capitalist state immense power over its citizens: 1984 in the 21st century. In most sci-fi dystopian nightmares, however, the state is all-powerful, the masses compliant and enslaved. In reality, the working class – when conscious of its potential power as the producer of the wealth in society – is the most dynamic agency for progressive change.

We defend democratic rights within capitalism, even though it is clear that genuine democracy is not possible on the basis of this profit-driven, exploitative system. And the ‘rights’ which sometimes can be taken for granted – the right of workers to organise in trade unions, of assembly (to meet and demonstrate), to strike, to form political parties, for legal representation, to vote, and for a relatively free press, etc – have only been won through bitter struggle over decades, even centuries.

They are not permanent. They remain in place only so long as they are defended by the organised working class. The British state has got away with its attacks so far – on the basis of 9/11 and the capitulation by New Labour leaders. But, as part of a revival of the workers’ movement, working-class people will fight to reclaim our democratic rights.

Those rights are also tools which can be used in our struggle to bring about a socialist transformation of society. Such a society, democratically organised, would apply scientific advances for the benefit of all, not the maintenance of control in the hands of a few.


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