Stop and quizz powers

June 2, 2007 at 3:00 am Leave a comment

Max konked outI’ve had plenty of email reaction to some of my recent posts on the surveillance society. I’ve been asked about CCTV cameras in Australia and to post a general rundown of surveillance issues here – I’m researching into this, so expect a future post. Meanwhile, it seems that many of us are a tad uneasy about the intrusion into our personal lives of increased monitoring, surveillance, and the “you could be a terrorist, so let’s frisk you” type attitude.

So I’m alarmed to have come across news of proposed new anti-terror laws, giving police greater “stop and quizz” powers in the UK. The increased powers would give police the right to stop anyone in the UK, ask for proof of identity and an explanation as to your movements. And if you don’t cooperate, you get smacked with a £5000 fine. Section 44 of the UK’s Terrorism Act 2000 already gives police the power to stop and search you or your vehicle if there is reasonable cause to believe a crime may be committed or the area is at risk of terrorism (how defined I wonder?).

Naturally, civil liberties groups have expressed their concern about the proposed law and the potential for these new powers to alienate communities, such as Muslims. A Labour politician said: “We’ve got to be very careful that we don’t create the domestic equivalent of Guantanamo Bay, which was an international abuse of human rights, and acted as recruiting sergeant for dissidents and alienated Muslims and many other people across the world“. And the Chairman of the Islamic Human Rights Commission said it was important to separate security issues from the “politics of fear”.

There’s a suggestion that the new law will be fast-tracked before Tony Blair steps down as Prime Minister on June 27. It’s also been mooted that the Police Minister told Blair that the “stop and question” powers would be ‘very useful UK wide” and would be seen as less intrusive than “stop and search” powers (this is semantics surely, the result is the same: police can haul you over and grill you). Northern Ireland (which has had its fair share of experience with police stopping and questioning) Secretary, Peter Hain, commented: “We cannot have a reincarnation of the old ‘sus’ laws under which mostly black people, ethnic minorities, were literally stopped on sight and that created a really bad atmosphere and an erosion of civil liberties“.

Police state anyone? is Blair hoping to leave office on a tough note leaving a rushed law and a trail of controversy behind him? And hot on the heels of the “stop and quizz” laws is news of civil rights fears over a national DNA database in the UK. The current Government is reviewing the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (Pace), which includes examining a controversial plan to enter DNA details of convicted citizens into a national database. The fear is that people convicted of minor offences such as littering would be included. The crux of the matter is surely that a tipping point will be reached and authorities will say that ALL people’s DNA should be entered, not just that of criminals and minor offenders.

The UK has five times as many people on its DNA database than any other country. Even if the database is not expanded to include minor offenders, 4.5 million people will still be tracked by 2010. At the moment, if a UK citizen commits a minor or non-recordable offence, police do not have the power to fingerprint or collect DNA evidence for submission to the database. But the Home Office thinks that not having the power to collect personal details from people who have committed minor crimes undermines the purpose of the database (which by the way is??). A Home Office spokesperson quipped: ‘The Pace consultation is about maximising police efficiency and ensuring that appropriate and effective safeguards are in place. We have made no decisions but we must consider anything which might free up police time or improve the efficiency and effectiveness of police investigations.’ And of course, having the personal details of every person, their dog, cat and assorted goldfish already recorded would sure free up police time!

And here’s a scary quote in defense of the national database – from Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate, a former president of the Police Superintendents’ Association – “If I had my way, the DNA we now take from newborn babies to check for genetic disorders would be added to the national database in the national interest“.

The Home Office apparently expects a public backlash against the proposal – no kidding! I’m off to have a good lie down to stop myself from hyperventilating at the prospect of civil liberties being severely eroded.

But before I go: be aware that Google has just launched Street View at the Where 2.0 conference. In certain cities, you will be able to get a view of a street; you move along the street; and change the angle of view. Go check out this street image and then go play around with Google Maps Street View a bit (click the Street View icon and you can drag a little icon of a person onto a blue lined street, which has a camera). Notice anything? if you’re concerned about surveillance and privacy issues, then you might notice that the level of detail from the images allows for individual faces, license plate numbers and so on to be shown. Indeed, according to an article in The New York Times, a woman in Oakland, California used Google Street View, typed in her address and the screen showed a street-level view of her building. As she zoomed in, she could see Monty, her cat, sitting on a perch in the living room window of her second-floor apartment. If you can see Monty, the cat, what else could you see in this woman’s apartment by zooming in? This gives a whole new spin to the notion of Peeping Toms. And here’s the Street View of Monty, probably the world’s first spied upon cat.

And go here to see the Top 15 Google Street View sightings: some are quite funny and remind me of Candid Camera; one is pretty sad (No 6); and the others just show the level of detail these images capture. Then we have people being encouraged to vote for their favourite Google Street Views – inadvertant snapshots of innocent people – and some of them are of bikini-clad girls.

As good as Google is, has anyone stopped to wonder about the enormous amount of data Google is collecting through cookies, which record your IP address, the time and date, your search terms and your browser configuration. How long is this data retained for? How exactly is it used? This just might be a privacy time bomb waiting to happen.

If you’re interested in reading more on Google cookies and other issues, check out Google Watch, created in 2000 because they were concerned about Google’s long-lived cookie (it expires in 2038). Now, Google Watch might be a bunch of conspiracy theorists or nerds, not sure, but they certainly are asking interesting questions.

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Entry filed under: DNA, Google, Privacy, Surveillance society, Technology.

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