UK Liberty

The Subtleties of Surveillance

Posted in law and order, politicians on liberty, surveillance society by ukliberty on November 21, 2008

Targeted Surveillance vs. Mass Surveillance

There is a clear and obvious difference (I hope!) between ‘targeted surveillance’ for a particular purpose, which people like myself generally don’t have a problem with provided it is necessary, proportionate, and they have proper authorisation, and ‘mass surveillance’ in the hope that we might be able to one day catch some unknown person planning or doing something unknown at some unknown point in time.

An example of targeted surveillance is the intercept of communications of a person suspected of criminal offences – say, bugging his phone.  Or covertly following or watching him.

In general there is nothing wrong with that provided the surveillance team has the proper authorisation (e.g. a warrant), there is no reasonable alternative, and it is an appropriate and not excessive response to the activity you suspect the target of being engaged in.

An example of mass surveillance is the recording of all the details of electronic (i.e. Internet and telephone) communications, except for content, of everyone in the UK; or the recording of the details of every transaction involving the identity he has been assigned by the state. Or lots of CCTV cameras along a public highway.


Proportionality means that the measures used to combat an undesirable activity should be necessary and not go too far, should be appropriate.

That is to say you wouldn’t intercept the communications of everyone in a particular street if you are interested in only Mr Smith at number 72, and you would only intercept Mr Smith’s communications if you suspected him of committing an offence for which interception (breach of his privacy) was a reasonable response and there was no alternative means of gathering sufficient evidence.

In a different field, it isn’t proportional to keep people subject to control orders in their houses for most of the day because they haven’t been convicted of a criminal offence.

Function creep

Function creep is when a measure designed and promoted for one particular purpose is used for other purposes.

A recent real-life example is the use of the freezing measures in part II of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001: David Blunkett, when he was Home Secretary, persuaded Parliament that the financial controls were to halt the funding of organised crime and terrorism; of course, recently there has been a big fuss over these same measures being used against the UK assets of an Icelandic company.

Glossing over the subtleties

Hugo Rifkind, writing in the Times, glosses over these subtleties, conflating targeted and mass surveillance, and proportionate and disproportionate use of surveillance, and all the purposes of surveillance (he makes no distinction between watching for poorly timed bin bag placement and monitoring of sound levels from noisy neighbours).

Big Brother only wants to help you

The ‘Town Hall Stasi’ have been pilloried by politicians for tracking our every move but, as Hugo Rifkind discovers, the eyes behind the surveillance cameras can be a force for good — tackling everything from noisy neighbours to dog mess

I’m under cover with some spies, about to plant a bug. Or rather, to be more precise, I am in a stylish, modern flat in a riverside block in Newcastle, with a man called Ed and a man called Ian, and a young couple who have barely slept in six months.

The target lives in a neighbouring flat. He has a stereo in his living room and a stereo in his bedroom. He goes clubbing twice a week, and usually brings the club home. Every time Manchester United play, he has a party. “I think he’s also got a new drum kit,” adds the husband, helplessly. He has never spoken to this neighbour. He was going to once. Another neighbour got there first. It sounded as though there was going to be a fight.

Ed asks for silence, so that he can calibrate the machine. Outside, we can hear cars and seagulls. And then, bang on cue, there is a thump. The wife gives a nervous laugh.

Depending on who you ask, Ed Foster and Ian Cross are “snoopers” (most newspapers), “Town Hall Stasi” (one newspaper), “instruments of a creeping Orwellian state” (Chris Huhne, the Lib Dems’ home affairs spokesman) and “eroding our fundamental freedoms” (Dominic Grieve, the Shadow Home Secretary). These are the people that David Davis was so concerned about, the ones whom the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph insist are hell-bent on misusing “anti-terrorist legislation” and turning Britain into a bleak facsimile of Cold War East Germany.

Noise pollution – say, a neighbour regularly spoiling the peaceful enjoyment of your home with loud music – is serious and can be very distressing.  I would say that a reasonable response, if he does not respond to complaints or if you are uncomfortable about approaching him, is to call the council and ask them to setup monitoring equipment.  That is targeted surveillance and a proportionate response. I doubt anyone has specifically referred to such surveillance as being Stasi-like or eroding our fundamental freedoms.

Rifkind makes light of all this in the next three paragraphs.


The fuss about surveillance, or at least the latest round of it, kicked off earlier this year, in Poole. Remember that? It concerned school applications. For a period of weeks, officials had been studying the movements of parents, to establish that they lived where they claimed they did. Cue media fandango.

One family was monitored for three weeks because the parents were (wrongly) suspected of lying about living in a particular school catchment area.  It was targeted surveillance but the council eventually agreed it was disproportionate surveillance.

The surveillance was conducted under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), invariably otherwise known as “anti-terror legislation”. Of which more later.

Speaking to a House of Lords committee on Wednesday, Vernon Coaker, the Policing Minister, finally agreed to crack down on local authority surveillance. There have been too many stories, peers felt, about town halls spying on people who put their bins out on the wrong day, or who let their dogs poo where a dog should not. “We have to stop some of these other things happening,” said Coaker, to growls of approval.

Perhaps you’re growling yourself. Perhaps even my vignette above, from Newcastle, made you shudder. The Lives of Others. Surveillance society. Stasi Britain. All that. A land where neighbour denounces neighbour, CCTV cameras watch our every move and robots trawl through our dustbins, looking for mouldy aubergine in the recycling section.

A spokesman for the pressure group Liberty called the Poole affair “hugely intrusive”. In time, it emerged that many councils were using RIPA powers, some of them quite frequently. Newspapers began campaigns, Keith Vaz, MP, the chairman of the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, declared himself “personally shocked” and various people began to promise that various things would be done. And, in Newcastle, the council leader, John Shipley, began to grow alarmed.

His officers didn’t use covert surveillance in investigations connected to schools, bins or dog poo, but they did use it in plenty of other areas.

Including noisy neighbours, anti-social behaviour, and breaches of tenancy conditions – all proportionately responded to, on the face of it.

And yet Councillor Shipley was confident that they weren’t doing anything wrong, or even anything that would sound wrong. So, whereas most local authorities prefer to keep quiet about their RIPA use, he decided that Newcastle should come clean. He demanded full details of all surveillance activities, and he made sure that all of his fellow council members knew about them as well. Then, before anybody asked him to, he explained it all to the local press. No other council in Britain thought to do this. If the public tend to be frightened about surveillance, this could give us a clue as to why.

“I have seen nothing that has caused me concern,” shrugs Councillor Shipley, in a wood-panelled boardroom in Newcastle Civic Centre. “And we have had no complaints. Zero. None. Not one.” Shipley and his officers crack a few jokes about my Dictaphone, and then began to school me in the legal technicalities of directed surveillance – “the covert surveillance of a particular person, or for the purposes of a specific investigation, where private information about any individual is likely to be obtained”.

But perhaps he hasn’t had any complaints because his council hasn’t covertly surveilled people suspected of – shock horror – putting out their bin bags half an hour too early.

… Most newspapers seem incapable of referring to RIPA without dubbing it an “anti-terror law”, as though its employment by local authorities is inevitably some sort of heavy-handed abuse. On Wednesday, in that House of Lords committee, their lordships did the same. As any council officer, lawyer or unhysterical crime journalist will wearily tell you, this simply isn’t the case. In 2000, true enough, it applied only to the police and security services. As Home Secretary in 2003, David Blunkett extended the law to apply to local authorities and other public bodies, to be used for exactly the purposes that are now, suddenly, so controversial. …

Right.  Because when it was being pushed through Parliament, it was on the grounds that it would be used to combat serious crime, terorism, and paedophilia…


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