Technology that gives the edge to 'Big Brother'

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The Independent Online
The news that Indonesia's internal security forces are using a British computer system casts an interesting light on the Home Secretary Michael Howard's suggestion that the UK is a "centre of excellence" for counter-terrorist surveillance. The idea of such centres was endorsed by leaders of the Western industrial states and Russia at their summit on terrorism in Paris on Tuesday.

One man's counter-terrorist system is another man's Big Brother. Britain's long experience in Northern Ireland has helped shape counter-terrorist technology - hardware and software - which is of potential value to states wishing to keep their populations under control.

Among British military and security equipment sold to Indonesia in the last decade was a prototype of Generics - the Nato command information system developed by Plessey Defence Systems of Ilford, Essex. Generics can display complex information about events unfolding across a landscape, and could be used to monitor traffic as well as in military or security situations. It would enable the user to concentrateforces efficiently in response to demonstrations and riots.

Industry sources yesterday said Plessey had installed a command information system, which was mainly a briefing tool, in Jakarta in 1986. This was before the Generics system proper was developed; Indonesia never received the fully developed version. Local Indonesian companies made some changes which caused problems, and would not let Plessey back in to correct them, suggesting that the system may have been adapted for local purposes.

A decade later, Plessey supplied the Police Information Manager, selected by Avon and Somerset and South Yorkshire constabularies. Like Generics, it logs incidents and telephone calls as they occur and displays them graphically. Such a system has obvious uses in countering outbreaks of violence or dissent.

The information can be relayed to high-resolution displays including maps and detailed town plans - suitable for internal security operations.

According to Jane's Defence Weekly, Indonesia was the first customer for Generics.

Plessey had recently won a UK Ministry of Defence contract worth pounds 35 million for an automated, computer-assisted electronic warfare system which also used Generics to help assimilate complex data.

A user could click on a particular house on the map, to obtain a read- out of who lived there, which political party they supported, any criminal records, and so on. A policeman approaching the house would then know what to expect. Uses could be benign - the system would be useful to fire services in, for example, recording the position of hydrants. If the occupant were deaf, they would know to knock loudly. If he were known to be a drug dealer, the approach might be different.

The prototype system supplied to Indonesia was a graphics tool specifically designed for a briefing room in Jakarta.

Industry sources last night said that, given advances in computers and information systems in the last decade, any system Indonesia is using to manage the current disturbances would probably have little in common with the Generics prototype.

However, a graphical display of "incidents and resources", updated with more recent software, would clearly help the Indonesian regime to keep tabs on the population.