House of Lords damns British surveillance society

A report from the House of Lords on surveillance in the UK damns the widespread use of databases, CCTVs, and other incursions on personal freedom, noting, "privacy is an essential prerequisite to the exercise of individual freedom," and questioning whether CCTVs are useful in fighting crime, and whether local councils should be allowed to surveil people at all.
Lord Goodlad, the former Tory chief whip and committee chairman, said there could be no justification for this gradual but incessant creep towards every detail about an individual being recorded and pored over by the state.

"The huge rise in surveillance and data collection by the state and other organisations risks undermining the long-standing traditions of privacy and individual freedom which are vital for democracy," he said. "If the public are to trust that information about them is not being improperly used there should be much more openness about what data is collected, by whom and how it is used."

The constitution committee makes more than 40 recommendations to protect individual privacy, including the deletion of all profiles from the national DNA database except for those of convicted criminals and a call for the mandatory encryption of personal data held by public and private organisations that are legally obliged to hold it.

But the report is silent on proposals from Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, for a "superdatabase" tracking everybody's emails, calls, texts and internet use and from Jack Straw, the justice secretary, to lower barriers on the widespread sharing of personal data across the public sector.

Lords: rise of CCTV is threat to freedom


  1. The one thing I like about the House of Lords is as they don’t have to stand for election, they are able to take views like this which you’d almost never hear from an actual politician.

  2. I still don’t get it:
    How can someone be against CCTV cameras and databases, but for taking pictures of – well, everything – and sticking it on flickr?

    Is not flickr a database? What is the difference between a CCTV camera and a camcorder?

    Am I missing something vital here?

    BTW, well done on the Lords for not being totally useless, I guess.

  3. I agree with adonai said – here in Canada where we also enjoy a parliamentary democracy the Senate is the “House of sober second thought” and although they get perks galore I have always been happy to know they where there ready to hold up legislation and generally stick it in the eye of the gov.

  4. @3 Seriously? Please. Choosing which images of yourself you want to post to Flickr is -entirely- different than not being able to choose if surveillance cameras capture your image. That and I’m pretty sure there aren’t pictures of me on Flickr anyway.

    My only way to choose to not be surveilled by London CCTVs is to choose to not go there. Which sucks.. I really like London and would like to visit again some day, but I fear the London I used to know is no longer what London is.

  5. For the fans of Greg Bear: In Queen of Angles there is “oversight” of most public spaces. Public Oversight can help the police with an investigation if the police make a very strong case for needing this information. In the case of Bear’s story, the police are given some information which helps them solve a crime. For those who read this book, does this sound like a good idea to you? This future of Bear’s sounds like our future. What kind of privacy is required in public? Seriously, what are you not going to do when you think someone may be looknig? Pick your nose? Throw trash on the ground? No one pays any attention to the CCTVs after about a minute. No one pays attention to signs either. No one pays attention to the people walking around them or anything else they learn to filter out.

  6. I do like how the Lords are often a voice of sanity, throwing down stupid stuff the commons keep putting up. It’s just a shame that they keep getting involved in scandals like buying their seats, or the commons throwing in “peoples’ peers” who never turn up.

  7. I gave the Lords their first seminar on surveillance technologies and then co-ordinated a submission from the Surveillance Studies Network (and later gave evidence). I agree that there are many holes (the superdatabase proposal being one, the lack of any solid recommendation about ID cards being another), but this is a seriously combative report…

    Read my analysis here:

  8. Choosing which images of yourself you want to post to Flickr is -entirely- different than not being able to choose if surveillance cameras capture your image.

    Sure, if you only ever photograph yourself.

    What about if I take a picture of you without your consent? Would that be ok?
    If not, do you think everyone should have to give their consent before they can be photographed?
    Even police officers?

  9. What amazes me is how often I get UK residents defending the widespread surveillance they are the victims of. In discussions I’ve had online, apologists for the practice seem to outnumber those who don’t like it by a wide margin…or perhaps they’re just more vocal? Either way, it’s disturbing.

  10. Spincycle, what are UK residents victims of? I assume it is a sense of privacy that is being violated? But is that a real privacy, or just the preception of it? I’m so untrusting of the public in general that I think I would actually like to live in an area with lots of CCTVs. So what if some AI sees me scratching my balls or punching the old man next door? Maybe I just don’t care, because I always assume someone is watching me, and I do try to be on my best behavior nearly all of the time. Besides, by the look of the internet, everyone wants to be a star, so maybe they’ll be discovered on a CCTV. Think of it as a potential doorway to stardom.

  11. I’ve said this many times using my real name unashamedly. Cameras are not a threat to anything but crime unless misused in willful fashion by someone. Same with reasonable and needful database items. The “system” knowing we were in “blank” Park @1705 on November 4th 2008 is not a threat unless either we did something criminal or the data confirming that is being used to fabricate charges. Same with Cellphone GPS traces etc. Why that concept is of import seems the demarcation between several groups and their policy desires. It’s stupidly simple to me. We have no hope of *EVER* absent losing the tech base to make Cameras etc removing them from our lives. and frankly put it would be gobsmackingly STUPID to remove a neutral technology as opposed to making it one used only for our service.

    So we then must make our world one in which information is not misused by authority. By making all authority answerable to the people- before the fact. If only we can make that so.

  12. Here’s the thing: the cameras haven’t helped fight crime much. They haven’t really been used to harm people much either but in light of how they really don’t seem to affect anything should taxpayers be asked to pay more money for a benefit- neutral service?

    Also regarding flickr- this is government that seems to be encouraging the harrassment of photographers in the name of “privacy” and “security” while telling us government cameras are essential to maintaining our safety.

    I think I’d rather have my photo in flickr posted by a stranger than being looked at by the police in connection with a crime that happened nearby (outside of the camera’s range)

  13. Too. Late.

    And weren’t the Tories in charge when CCTV became widespread..? Didn’t people make these arguments then, but were told to trust the benevolent state..?
    Kind of hypocritical for them to be arfuing against it now.
    The UK has 1% of world population but 20% of world CCTV cameras. 1 camera for every 14 people, over 200,000 cameras in London… That’s not going to be easy to undo.

  14. Sounds like someone is afraid of getting caught with their Nazi dominatrix hooker. I suggest that we follow everyone who votes for surveillance and record everything they do and say. Also, maybe some of you who support intrusive governments should save the taxpayers a lot of money and just strap a camera and microphone to your head to record and upload everything you do and say.

    More and more, of late, I have huge difficulties believing some of the comments in support of intrusive and violent governments who seem hellbent on imprisoning everyone outside of their own gated communities.

  15. Sounds like someone is afraid of getting caught with their Nazi dominatrix hooker.

    Who told you about that? ;)

    And weren’t the Tories in charge when CCTV became widespread..? Didn’t people make these arguments then, but were told to trust the benevolent state..? Kind of hypocritical for them to be arfuing against it now.

    Yeah, in the States there’s something similar going on that Republicans are only now complaining about budget deficits and malfeasance, never mind the previous 8 years of Republican corporate welfare and $3b/month military spending.

  16. #15: No GG, they weren’t. There was a fairly limited system in place when Major’s government imploded. The massive expansion of goverment and council CCTV and its use of related technologies has been a Labour programme. Things can only get better…

  17. “this is government that seems to be encouraging the harrassment of photographers in the name of “privacy” and “security” while telling us government cameras are essential to maintaining our safety.”

    Is holding the converse opinion not also hypocritical, by necessity? Objecting to being photographed against your will as a violation of your civil liberties, and also against your right to photograph anyone and everyone against their will, without exception? Do you guys at least see how someone might find that hypocritical?

    For the record, I’m not particularly against police surveillance on any ideological basis. I haven’t heard any convincing arguments for why being caught by a camera is worse than being caught by a policeman’s eyes in person. If you’re objecting to getting caught for every trivial offense, your issue should be with the fact that those trivial things are illegal, not the method in which you were caught doing them.

    Now, if you wanted to argue that it’s *ineffective,* then that’s a completely different argument, now isn’t it?

  18. Well, it’s a start. We can only hope it’s not the end as well.

    As an aside, when I worked in a supermarket a few years ago, a colleague and I walked into the ‘security’ officers office to find that he had a camera zoomed in on the backside of one of the female shelf stackers and was masturbating furiously. Gross.

  19. Thank god for the House of Lords. The basic problem with the British parliamentary system is that since the PM is chosen by the party that controls Parliament, there’s no effective check on the state — the party in power inherently controls both the legislature and the executive. The Lords, as strangely archaic as they are, are one of the few effective restraints on overweening state power.

  20. @13: It is difficult to imagine how all those little pieces of information, which you certainly aren’t concealing, could possibly be harmful, until you experience it for yourself. Privacy is not really about how much of your data is public. It’s about whether or not you have the ability to control your data. It doesn’t matter if every dry cleaner in Tennessee knows your imaginary friend’s birthday, your favorite book, and exactly how much bran you’re getting in your diet, as long as you were the one who authorized them to know.

    Privacy is enormously important, even more on a psychological level than a practical one. This is reflected in the language. Privacy is not just infringed upon; it is violated. If you’ve never had your privacy violated and don’t know the feeling, let me assure you that the word is apt.

    You seem like a very open person. Not everyone is like that. Maybe you would not care if records were kept of your first date in the park, and how many times the two of you went out, and the time you got stood up, and how long after that you stopped going altogether, but for other people that information could be used to cause a great deal of psychological pain. Sure, any guy with a camcorder and a grudge could keep the same records, but he does not have the weight of government authority behind him, which makes a big difference in the victim’s perception of the situation, and whether their feelings of safety can be restored with any ease.

    Even if the government were never to use this information maliciously, how much faith do you have that they can keep it private for as long as they decide to keep it around, given their record so far?

    I’m certainly not saying we should outlaw photography, but I am not at all convinced that “Flickr does it, sort of,” is a good excuse for government databases of presumed innocents.

  21. OREN BECK – So we then must make our world one in which information is not misused by authority.

    you have much more faith in authority than I do.

    By making all authority answerable to the people- before the fact. If only we can make that so.

    and people.

    The best way to keep the information “secure” is to NOT COLLECT IT. It’s a cost savings too. There are much better ways to catch criminals and deter crime – do away with paper money.

  22. I have a right to privacy.
    I have a right not to be harassed.

    I will be treated as innocent until proven guilty, or I will revolt.

  23. @Goldmatenes: I think Oingo Boingo said it best:

    “Big Brother’s marching
    So we all stand in his way.”

  24. On the entertaining side of surveillance, odd things caught on Google Street View. Don’t miss the deer hit and killed by the street view car.

  25. Damn Antinous. That link should’ve been a post in it’s own right. Not stuck down here in the comments.

  26. civil disobedience works if everybody does it. “Smash A Camera Day”. They can’t arrest everyone. Or even catch everyone. Paint-bomb those too high to reach or armoured. It could be like a vote.

  27. Points well made by Andrea N and MDH. Yet?

    I hold it’s all about seeking a balance of reality. Parents do not parent any longer and our school system is designed to produce what it does.
    Sad but true. In the world of romantic idealists we would do no evil. Heinlein’s Covenant exists only in his books and the minds of a few “like me!” who could live quite comfortably in such a society. With due respect to the sincere proponents of Anarchy or TAZ spaces I still regretfully concede that we have some growing up to do as a species. Not only in our actions to each other but in our mundane surroundings where cars crash and things catch fire.

    The camera can skeeve you out worrying about your Stolen Kiss winding up on page 1. Or it can let fire central dispatch a crew to keep that trash fire from burning down your building. And yes- misused it can indeed get you busted for that “victimless crime.” Which,if we had a just society would not be an issue. As we’d have no such infringement of our freedom allowed!

    Same with the databases. A browser history or DNS request dumps might well out you as not being the Vegan your fiancee thought you were. Or we’d have it need a court order of the old fashioned sort needing sworn testimony as to what was being sought and why. Which would need to pass judicial muster BEFORE that information could be accessed. In frank english? NO tolerance for ECHELON or Carnivore dragnets. So arguably I am LESS tolerant of the police state even getting started than most. But that’s tempered by reasoned detachment. Cameras used to enforce an ASBO against nose picking are not a valid use. Strip mining a database so an insurer can call my Acid Reflux a “pre-existing” condition because my CVS loyalty card ratted out my Pepsid use is equally deranged. As medical care should be free from such managed denial of care! See a pattern?

    In one set of usages these cameras and databases are truly our servants. Misused they can indeed enslave us. I propose we make damned sure they only serve and never be allowed to enslave. Thye devil is in the making it so.

  28. OrenBeck, Your point about the fire in the wastebin is a great one.

    But in the world of romantic idealists people in general are a lot more cooperative and competent than they are (or have ever been) in the real world. We hobble along, always wary of the tyrrany of the majority.

  29. MDH:

    Yes- you “get it” And as Heinlein said Mrs Grundy never sleeps in her quest to save us from what she calls sin.

    I think Niven’s “Cloak of Anarchy” story should be required reading before one comments on public security issues:> Or? For the more in=depth scholars? The David Brin essays on Transparent Society. followed by a re-reading of 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. As those are cautionary tales. Though we just deposed an American regime that sought to use those last two books as a blueprint.

  30. All I can say is that here’s the next layer down, which I’m afraid is less linear:

    When I was much younger I used to like science fiction with telepathic societies in which there were no secrets and everyone was always aware of the feelings of others. I thought it would be nice to be a part of that because then I wouldn’t be lonely anymore.

    Eventually I realized that I have never done anything worthwhile in public. My proudest accomplishments are all things I did for myself, alone. I’ve learned to avoid people who want to be totally open together, not because I’m afraid they will take advantage, but because I despise them. In them I see the same crippling lack of self-confidence that made me want what they still do.

    I make time for friends and family but I am absolutely jealous of my time alone. Sometimes I like to watch movies by myself so that I can react honestly, without absorbing the reactions of the people around me or unconsciously playing my own reactions for their benefit. It doesn’t matter how good or loving those people are, they are still capable of affecting me in a way I measure harmful, just by being there.

    Cameras don’t worry me because they may reveal things about me. Instead I worry that there will be no reveal at all because the audience has tainted the performance. No matter how benign its presence and how strict and well-meaning its operators, while the camera is there I will never, ever be able to relax completely.

    Even if the system were perfect there would still be people like me, pressing deeper into whatever dark holes are left just to have some space to rest. Even if the only place left to retreat becomes my own mind I will have to go there because I can’t survive in any meaningful way without it.

  31. Some people say those who shut out the world are introverted freaks.

    Sometimes I envy their serenity.

  32. I remember an entertaining bit I read on privacy…someone saying they didn’t mind being watched and having their picture taken, he didn’t have anything to hide. The person making the point asked if they could see their wallet. Why sure, said the first person. When the second started going through it bit by bit the first person started getting uncomfortable and said I say now, what’s this? Stop that!

    that’s invasion of privacy, mate. They have no respect for your personhood, they don’t ask your permission, they don’t believe they HAVE to ask your permission.

    The House of Lords ROCKS sometimes.
    and if I want to hang out with my Nazi dominatrix–which is LEGAL, by the way, even still in the UK–that’s MY business.

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