Surveillance in the UK rose significantly under Theresa May – who knows how far the next Tory leader will take it

From facial recognition to prevent legislation, attempts to ‘better society’ are in the hands of a police state that was rarely held accountable under the last prime minister, and is unlikely to be challenged in the near future

Edna Mohamed
Sunday 09 June 2019 12:56 BST
Police are trailling controversial facial recognition technology in Stratford

Surveillance in Britain is not a new concept. From TV shows like Big Brother to Orwell’s 1984 the creation of an omnipresent watchdog has always had a big place in the public’s imagination. But Britain’s history of surveillance and monitoring can be found at the heart of its colonial projects, where scrupulous observation served the purpose of ensuring that any resistance to British rule would be suppressed.

With the advent of technology and overwhelmingly repressive surveillance techniques, we’ve seen the development of a tool of a violent state apparatus that has transformed into unchecked power. The majority of the legislation that we currently have existed pre-Theresa May but escalated under both her leadership of the Home Office and as prime minister, cementing the UK’s “golden age” of surveillance.

Out of the candidates in the running for the Conservative Party leadership, all have consistently voted for mass surveillance of people’s communications and activities, and all but Esther McVey have consistently voted for stronger enforcement of immigration rules. With May now officially out of office, it would be naive to assume that surveillance under any of her predecessors would be anything less than repressive.

Britain currently has more cameras per person than any country in the world aside from China. With facial recognition technology making its rounds up and down the country, the cementing of the British police state is becoming harder to ignore. Unlike DNA and fingerprints, there aren’t any specific laws that facial recognition breaches or that regulate how the police use the data gathered. In 2018, for example, facial recognition was used in Wales to surveil peaceful protesters at an anti-arms rally, prompting a huge backlash around intrusive surveillance.

It is this danger of being added to a list and being deemed a potential threat that demonstrates what state surveillance has always done: suppressed any form of dissent against the government and encroached on personal freedoms. But there also has to be awareness about the ways that surveillance and this form of biometric data-gathering affect those who have precarious immigration statuses, or, for whatever reason, do not wish to be on a government list. We need to be aware that this disproportionately affects those with the most to lose, as well as the danger of matching people with so-called criminals on watch lists, regardless of whether they are the same person or not.

CCTV has also been drastically escalated throughout the years. In the borough of Hackney, a historically working-class area with a demographic that is predominantly black, Turkish and Kurdish, has been said to have anywhere between 2,182 and 2,900 CCTV cameras for a population of 273,500 (in recent years, Hackney Council has only provided figures for the number of highway and housing estate camera numbers in the borough). When you consider this statistic within a wider scope of CCTV in England, you’ll find that this one borough in London has more CCTV than Bristol, Birmingham, Stoke-on-Trent, Chelmsford and Liverpool collectively. Data collected by these cameras is not always owned by the government, meaning that in addition to being watched constantly, private companies can use and have access to your personal data.

In 2016, the government continued this notion of a benevolent watchdog through the Investigatory Powers Act, or what is known as the “Snooper’s Charter”, which was supposed to introduce transparency to state surveillance, but hasn’t actually done that. The charter allows the government to hack phones, computers and tablets to collect all communications.

But a recent review into the Investigatory Powers Act found that there had been a breach of surveillance safeguards by MI5. Liberty, a human rights group, said that this was a “clear-cut example of how the supposed safeguarding and oversight system is failing to protect us from the excessive and unwarranted surveillance and data-retention powers created under the Snooper’s Charter”. While the Snooper’s Charter is deemed unlawful because this level of mass digital retention lacks adequate safeguards, it still continues to exist as a tool of repressive control.

But these actions that the government has enacted as a form of “protection” only hurt us in the long run and target specific communities. Prevent legislation, passed in 2011, is the best representation of this and has had detrimental effects in Muslim communities.

Introduced as preventing terrorism as part of Britain’s war on terror, the law understands extremist thought as being a “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”. Whilst the legislation does discuss terrorism in general terms, it is still heavily focused on Islamic terror as opposed to, say, right-wing extremism.

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It’s moves like these that contribute to the normalisation of Islamophobia. Those who cannot perform “Britishness”, whatever and however that is supposed to look like, become suspects in the wider state apparatus of control. With everyone from lecturers and child carers placed under legal obligation to follow Prevent ruling, the state has effectively put anyone who doesn’t slot into narrow understandings of “British values” in a vulnerable position. Rather than protecting people, what Prevent legislation has done, in reality, is drastically change the relationship between Muslims and the state and contained those from this background in a space of pre-crime.

What we’ve seen in all these cases of extreme surveillance is the push for integration and assimilation. Of ensuring that anyone deemed a potential threat is held at a tight grip. From facial recognition to the hostile environment to Prevent legislation, these attempts to “better society” are in the hands of a police state that cannot be checked or held accountable. Instead, it has fostered an environment of exclusion, repressive social control and violence

It’s clear the state isn’t here to save or protect us, but it is there to make sure that citizens fit into a specific model that can be closely observed. Whether this draconian approach will continue is still up for debate. But considering Britain’s shift towards upping surveillance, particularly where marginalised communities are concerned, it’s unlikely that it will go away any time soon.

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