Digital rights abuse in your back garden

At the end of May, Amnesty International launched, a website devoted to highlighting internet repression and censorship in countries such as China, Syria, Turkmenistan, Tunisia, Israel, the Maldives and Vietnam. By republishing snippets of content from censored websites, Amnesty hopes to draw attention to these problems, and shame our governments and businesses into acting more responsibly when dealing with oppressive regimes.

Laudable campaigns like this do more than just highlight human rights issues in other countries: They can make us look at what is happening in our own. We think it disgraceful when technology is used for censorship and surveillance abroad, but how is our government behaving?

Let us look at three principles you might expect a democratic country to uphold, and see how well the UK does.

There should be no mass surveillance
The UK is currently the most surveilled country in the world, monitored by 4 million CCTV cameras. According to Liberty, if you live in London, you’ll be captured on camera 300 times a day. Facial recognition technology is used to identify individuals and ‘smart CCTV’ is used on the London Underground to identify patterns of behaviour that might precede crime or a suicide attempt.

Many of these CCTV cameras, along with speed cameras and specialised automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras, are now being used by the police to log car movements. The National Vehicle Movement Database uses ANPR to track all vehicles, 24/7, and will retain the data for at least two years.

It’s expected that the new central database in Hendon will have to deal with 35 million number plate reads per day. This data will not only be used to look for untaxed vehicles or police speeding, but also to try to predict, on the basis of petty driving offences, who is going to commit more serious crime.

There should be no censorship of the Internet
The UK government has decided that all broadband ISPs must, by the end of 2007, put in place technical measures to prevent the public accessing web pages listed as publishing child pornography by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF)

The IWF is an industry body which polices child pornography, criminally obscene material and content that incites racial hatred via a ‘notice and take down’ system. The system has decreased amount of material that originates in the UK to less than 0.1% of the total valid complaints.

Not all ISPs believe that network-level filtering is the best solution. Australia’s two largest ISPs, Telstra and Optus, recently refused to take part in an internet filtering experiment, saying that existing PC-based systems were adequate. But ministers in the UK disagree.

The Home Office has already indicated that it has considered asking British ISPs to block websites deemed to be “glorifying terrorism”. But basing filtering on nebulous concepts like “incitement” and “glorification” is a threat to free speech: it’s all too easy over-extend these concepts to include sites which are merely objectionable rather than criminal.

Once automatic filtering of IWF listed sites has been enabled, then it’s a small matter to expand that list. Legislation is not needed – ministers simply pressure the IWF to include new categories of site, and the deed is done.

There should be no indiscriminate collection of personal data by the authorities
The UK police have the largest DNA database in the world – the National DNA Database (NDNAD) – which it holds profiles for approximately 3.5 million people and is growing at about 40,000 samples per month.

Surprisingly, Privacy International figures show that over 750,000 children are listed, 51,000 of whom have never been charged or cautioned. Victims, witnesses and volunteers also get profiled and their data stored indefinitely, but despite their innocence their DNA will only be destroyed in “exceptional circumstances”.

Lynn Featherstone MP recently obtained statistics about the 118,743 adults on the database who have never been charged with a crime. Across the UK, 24% of the innocent adults listed were from ethnic minorities, even though ethnic minorities make up only 8% of the population. In London, 51% of the DNA came from a minority of 29%.

This is not a database of criminals but, as Tony Lake, chief constable of Lincolnshire police, put it “an intelligence database”. Yet according to GeneWatch UK, DNA is “unlikely to play a role in more than 0.5% of crimes” – that’s the number of cases that hinge on DNA data. DNA evidence is valuable, but the success of the NDNAD is determined by the amount of DNA taken from crime scenes, not the number of profiles on the database.

I welcome Amnesty’s new initiative and I hope it improves both the safety of foreign nationals and their governments’ respect for digital rights. We must not, however, wait for China to reform before we start rigourously examining the legislation and policies of our own governments. We have mass surveillance. We are moving towards internet censorship. And the police are gathering DNA profiles for as many people as they can.

Doesn’t make you feel safe, does it?