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THE dramatic decision by the French police to introduce nationwide facial recognition surveillance of its citizens is a sign of what is to come in Britain. Recently, police use of automatic facial recognition technology to search for people in crowds was judged lawful by the High Court in Cardiff.
The legal decision came on the same day the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan acknowledged that the Metropolitan Police had participated in the deployment of facial recognition software at the King’s Cross development in central London between 2016 and 2018, sharing some images with the property company running the scheme.
Britain has more CCTV cameras observing us than any other European state. Former CIA analyst Edward Snowden and the WikiLeaks revelations show the astonishing measures working globally to monitor the behaviour and attitudes of everyone.
Snowden lifted the lid on Tempora, an electronic surveillance programme operated by Britain’s eavesdropping agency GCHQ. The project uses intercepts on fibre-optic cables entering and leaving Britain, gathering vast amounts of private communications content and data. He also revealed the CIA used a programme called Prism to bulk harvest personal data on a colossal scale. GCHQ has also admitted it spied on diplomats at the G20 summit in 2009 in London.
The US government also uses a software programme called Boundless Informant which details and maps by country the data hoovered up by the ultra-secretive National Security Agency from private phone and computer systems.
A search engine called XKeyscore allowed CIA analysts to search emails, online chats and browsing histories of millions of citizens. Snowden also revealed that the NSA and GCHQ targeted and bypassed the Tor network which tries to protect the anonymity of web users. The US had to admit that the NSA was monitoring the phone calls of democratically elected world leaders when the German secret service accidentally discovered Angela Merkel’s mobile phone had been hacked.
But it’s not just the US and Britain up to dirty tricks – they are joined by Australia, Canada and New Zealand in an intelligence alliance called The Five Eyes system (also known as ECHELON). These countries are party to the multilateral UK/USA Agreement, a treaty for joint co-operation in secret intelligence.
During the course of the cold war, the ECHELON surveillance system was initially developed to monitor the communications of the former Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, although it is now used to monitor billions of private communications worldwide.
In the late 1990s, the existence of ECHELON was disclosed to the public, triggering a major debate in the European Parliament and, to a lesser extent, the US Congress. As part of efforts in the ongoing “war on terror” since 2001, the Five Eyes system further expanded their surveillance capabilities, with much emphasis placed on monitoring the World Wide Web.
Edward Snowden described the Five Eyes as a “supra-national intelligence organisation that does not answer to the known laws of its own countries.” Documents leaked by Snowden in 2013 revealed that the five countries have been spying on one another’s citizens and sharing the collected information with each other in order to circumvent restrictive domestic regulations on surveillance of citizens.
Nearer to home, the facial recognition database used by the police is a lawfully held database of European custody photos drawn together by police forces across Europe and co-ordinated by Europol. Europol has its headquarters in The Hague, the Netherlands, and works closely with law enforcement agencies in the 28 EU member states and with other non-EU partner states and organisations. It has more than 900 staff, around 100 criminal analysts and initiates over 18,000 cross–border investigations each year.
It is a massive part of the European secret intelligence network. Encouraged by terror laws, the authorities are increasingly using surveillance techniques in trivial circumstances — threatening civil liberties and pushing Britain further along the road to a police state. The abuse of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 is by far the most serious part of the revelation last year that authorities made over 500,000 annual requests to access phone and email records, the equivalent of one in 78 adults coming under some form of state surveillance.
In his recent annual report, surveillance commissioner Christopher Rose raised concerns about direct surveillance such as the bugging of public places, taking photographs of suspects and the use of covert human intelligence such as informants and undercover agents. Such techniques have long been part of police investigations into serious crime, but it is frightening to see these tactics routinely used.
Since the stream of revelations about the extent of the bulk collection of communications data and the relationship between the intelligence agencies and internet companies, the US and British governments — and their intelligence agencies — have made a series of assertions that have subsequently been retracted. Snowden was initially said to be a Chinese or Russian spy, but the US has since said this is not true. The US has also backtracked on claims that surveillance helped stop 56 plots and that Snowden had “blood on his hands.”
The British government and intelligence agencies in both countries claimed that the Snowden disclosures had helped terrorists, costing GCHQ 30 per cent of its capabilities and that agents had to be moved.
But no evidence had ever been provided to back up these assertions. As computer algorithms and artificial intelligence systems develop increasing sophistication, with a decreasing level of human oversight, we ought to be very concerned about the potential for unaccountable secret intelligence organisations to subvert our freedoms and privacy.
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