Club of Amsterdam

Last week I had the pleas­ure of speak­ing at the Club of Ams­ter­dam.  The topic under dis­cus­sion was “The future of digital iden­tity”.  Many thanks to Felix and the team. A lively even­ing.

Annie Machon at the Club of Ams­ter­dam from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
First pub­lished in my news­let­ter last week, amongst much else. Do sign up!

The Scorpion Stare

I have writ­ten over the years about the encroach­ing sur­veil­lance state, the spread of CCTV and the increas­ing use of drones in our skies.  When the North East of Eng­land intro­duced talk­ing CCTV cam­eras that could bark orders at passing ped­es­tri­ans in 2008, I thought that we were fast approach­ing the reduc­tio ad absurdum point — and indeed this sub­ject has raised a wry laugh from audi­ences around the world ever since.

Recently I have been read­ing with dis­may a slew of art­icles about the increas­ing cor­por­at­isa­tion of the sur­veil­lance state.  First I stumbled across a piece describ­ing Facebook’s latest innov­a­tion, Facedeal: cam­eras planted in shops and bars that will use the facial recog­ni­tion and tag­ging abil­it­ies of FB to recog­nise you as a val­ued cus­tomer and offer you a dis­count, simply because you have signed up to this Big Brother app on Facebook.

Add this to the fact that Face­book is prob­ably, well, an open book for to the entire US secur­ity appar­atus, and you can see the poten­tial abuse of this sys­tem.  We shall effect­ively be bribed to allow ourselves to be spied on.

Facedeal is being trialed in the US.  Some European coun­tries, most not­ably Ger­many, have already stated that data recog­ni­tion tech­no­logy used even just for photo “tag­ging” is or could be deemed illegal. Ger­many spe­cific­ally has reg­u­la­tions that allow Inter­net users con­trol over their data. They are not going to like Facedeal.

Secondly, it was repor­ted today that Google had pat­en­ted intel­li­gent image recog­ni­tion tech­no­logy.  Com­bine this cap­ab­il­ity with Googles Earth and Street, and we are poten­tially look­ing at a truly pan­op­ticon soci­ety.  The Ger­mans are really not going to like that. (Nor indeed will cer­tain of the French, includ­ing the man who earlier this year tried to sue Google after being pho­to­graphed hav­ing a pee in his own front garden).

Thirdly, Boe­ing has tri­umphantly launched the concept of the drone swarm, oper­at­ing with a hive men­tal­ity and upping the cap­ab­il­it­ies of mil­it­ary sur­veil­lance expo­nen­tially, while tak­ing much of the risk out of any operation.

And finally, the Wikileaks story about Trap­Wire. This first emerged as yet another bonkers Amer­ican scheme, where the foot­age from CCTV street cam­eras was being main­lined into the secur­ity appar­atus. Sub­sequently, it has emerged via Wikileaks that Trap­wire is also being used in other west­ern coun­tries, includ­ing the UK.

Not only can the securo­crats watch you, they too are installing face recog­ni­tion soft­ware that can identify you. While this may not yet be as accur­ate as the spies might wish, Trap­Wire has also installed pre­dict­ive soft­ware that appar­ently can assess whether you are act­ing, loiter­ing or walk­ing in a sus­pi­cious man­ner.  So you could pre-emptively be assessed to be about to com­mit a crime or an act of ter­ror­ism and, no doubt, appro­pri­ately and pre-emptively “dealt with”.

All of which must be so reas­sur­ing to protest groups such as Occupy, which have been sub­ject to massive CCTV sur­veil­lance in NYC and which have been labelled a “terrorist/extremist threat” in the City of London.

At the risk of sound­ing alarm­ist, we now all know what “being dealt with” in this era of anti-activist SWAT teams, drone strikes and kill lists can poten­tially entail.

So where does this leave us as con­cerned cit­izens?  It strikes me that we are being cata­pul­ted into some sci-fi dysto­pia bey­ond even Orwell’s wild­est ima­gin­ings.  Any fan of mod­ern thrillers and sci-fi will be famil­iar with the concept of integ­rated super-computers that can watch our every move via CCTV.

The lat­ter is what Trap­Wire et al are work­ing towards.  These new tech­no­lo­gies remind me of a story line from a won­der­ful series of books called the The Laun­dry Files by Charles Stross.  These nov­els are a per­fect of mer­ging of Len Deighton’s lac­onic spy fic­tion, à la Harry Palmer, with the geek uni­verse and bey­ond. And, at the risk of a spoiler, one of the story lines envis­ages a cent­ral­ised and weapon­ised CCTV sys­tem, main­lin­ing into the secret ser­vices, that can be turned on UK cit­izens if the bal­loon goes up. This sys­tem is code­named the “Scor­pion Stare”.

Sounds far-fetched? Well The Laun­dry Files are a rol­lick­ing good read, but do bear in mind not only that our CCTV sys­tems may be cent­ral­ised cour­tesy of Trap­Wire, but also that vari­ous law enforce­ment agen­cies in the UK are using micro-drones to spy on pro­test­ers, and that they have reportedly enquired if these drones could be weaponised.….

So it all depends on how you define the bal­loon, I suppose.

Pub­lished in The Huff­ing­ton Post UK, 3 Septem­ber 2012

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism article

Here is a recent art­icle I wrote for The Bur­eau of Invest­ig­at­ive Journ­al­ism, about our slide into a sur­veil­lance state.  

TBIJ sup­por­ted Wikileaks dur­ing the release of the Spy­Files. The issue is of such cru­cial import­ance for our demo­cracy, I was dis­ap­poin­ted that more of the main­stream media did not fol­low up on the stor­ies provided.

Here’s the text:

Ana­lysis: the slide into a sur­veil­lance state

Fifty years ago, Pres­id­ent Eis­en­hower warned of the ‘dis­astrous rise’ of the military-industrial com­plex. His fears proved all too accurate.

Now in the post-9/11 world, the threat goes even fur­ther: the military-industrial com­plex is evolving into the military-intelligence com­plex. It is a world, I fear, that is pro­pelling us into a dysto­pian sur­veil­lance nightmare.

I have seen this night­mare unfold from close quar­ters. In the mid-90s I was an intel­li­gence officer for MI5, the UK domestic secur­ity ser­vice. That is, until I resigned to help my former part­ner and col­league David Shayler blow the whistle on a cata­logue of incom­pet­ence, cover-ups and crimes com­mit­ted by spies. We naively hoped that this would lead to an inquiry, and a review of intel­li­gence work and account­ab­il­ity within the notori­ously secret­ive Brit­ish system.

The blun­ders and illegal oper­a­tions that we wit­nessed in our six years at MI5 took place at what is prob­ably the most eth­ical and account­able dec­ade in the Brit­ish spy­ing service’s 100-year history.

Even then, they were get­ting away with pretty much whatever they wanted.

Since the attacks of 9/11, I have watched with increas­ing dis­may as more powers, money and resources have been pumped into the inter­na­tional intel­li­gence com­munity to com­bat the neb­u­lous ‘war on ter­ror’. As a res­ult, civil liber­ties have been eroded in our own coun­tries, and count­less inno­cent people have been killed, maimed and dis­placed across the Middle East.

The Reg­u­la­tion of Invest­ig­at­ory Powers Act (RIPA), which was designed to allow our spy agen­cies to law­fully inter­cept our com­mu­nic­a­tions to counter ter­ror­ism and organ­ised crime, has been routinely used and abused by almost 800 pub­lic bod­ies. MI5 admit­ted to mak­ing 1,061 mis­takes or ‘admin­is­trat­ive errors’ this year alone in its applic­a­tion of RIPA, accord­ing to the Inter­cep­tion of Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sioner, Sir Paul Kennedy.

Intel­li­gence creep extends to the police, as we saw with the under­cover police scan­dal earlier this year, where the unac­count­able National Pub­lic Order Intel­li­gence Unit was dis­covered to be infilt­rat­ing harm­less and legit­im­ate protest groups for years on end.

It is a world, I fear, that is pro­pelling us into a dysto­pian sur­veil­lance nightmare.

Even bey­ond the under­cover cops, we have seen an explo­sion in cor­por­ate spy­ing. This involves mer­cen­ary spy com­pan­ies such as Xe (formerly Black­wa­ter), Kroll, Aegis and Dili­gence offer­ing not just secur­ity muscle in hot­spots around the world, but also bespoke oper­a­tions enabling big cor­por­a­tions to check out staff or to infilt­rate and invest­ig­ate protest groups that may embar­rass the companies.

The mer­cen­ary spy oper­ates without any over­sight what­so­ever, and can even be gran­ted immunity from pro­sec­u­tion, as Xe enjoyed when oper­at­ing in Iraq.

The last dec­ade has also been a boom time for com­pan­ies provid­ing high-tech sur­veil­lance cap­ab­il­it­ies. One aspect of this in the UK – the endemic CCTV cov­er­age – is notori­ous. Local coun­cils have inves­ted in mobile CCTV smart spy cars, while cam­eras that bark orders to you on the street have been tri­alled in Middlesbrough.

Drones are increas­ingly used for aer­ial sur­veil­lance – and the poten­tial for mil­it­ar­isa­tion of these tools is clear.

All this des­pite the fact that the head of the Met­ro­pol­itan Police depart­ment that is respons­ible for pro­cessing all this sur­veil­lance inform­a­tion stated pub­licly that CCTV evid­ence is use­less in help­ing to solve all but 3% of street rob­ber­ies in Lon­don. In fact, since CCTV has been rolled out nation­ally, viol­ent crime on the streets of Bri­tain has increased.

But, hey, who cares about facts when secur­ity is Big Busi­ness? Someone, some­where, is get­ting very rich by rolling out ever more Orwellian sur­veil­lance tech­no­logy. And while the tech­no­logy might not be used against the wider UK cit­izenry in a par­tic­u­larly malig­nant man­ner – yet – the same com­pan­ies are cer­tainly allow­ing their tech­no­lo­gies to find their way to the more viol­ent and repress­ive Middle East­ern states.

That would never hap­pen in Bri­tain – would it? We retain an optim­istic faith in the long-term benign inten­tions of our gov­ern­ment, while tut-tutting over Syr­ian police snatch squads pre-emptively arrest­ing sus­pec­ted dis­sid­ents. Yet this has already happened in the UK: before the royal wed­ding in April, pro­test­ers were pre-emptively arres­ted to ensure that they would not cause embar­rass­ment. The intent is the same in Syria and Bri­tain. Only the scale and bru­tal­ity dif­fers – at the moment.

When I worked for MI5 in the 1990s I was appalled how eas­ily tele­phone inter­cep­tion could be used illeg­ally, and how eas­ily the spies could hide their incom­pet­ence and crimes from the gov­ern­ment. In the last dec­ade it has become much worse, with senior spies and police officers repeatedly being caught out lying to the tooth­less Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee in Par­lia­ment. And this is only the offi­cial intel­li­gence sector.

How much worse is the endemic sur­veil­lance car­ried out by the cor­por­ate spy industry?

The bal­ance of power, bolstered by new tech­no­lo­gies, is shift­ing over­whelm­ingly in favour of the Big Brother state – well, almost. The WikiLeaks model is help­ing level the play­ing field, and whatever hap­pens to this trail­blaz­ing organ­isa­tion, the prin­ciples and tech­no­logy are out there and will be rep­lic­ated. This genie can­not be put back in the bottle. This – com­bined with the work of informed MPs, invest­ig­at­ive journ­al­ists and poten­tially the occa­sional whis­tleblower – gives me hope that we can halt this slide into a Stasi state.

Annie Machon is a former spy with MI5, the Brit­ish intel­li­gence agency work­ing to pro­tect the UK’s national secur­ity against threats such as ter­ror­ism and espi­on­age.
You can read Annie Machon’s blog ‘Using Our Intel­li­gence’ here.

If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide.…

“Well, if you’ve done noth­ing wrong, you have noth­ing to hide.  Why object to increas­ing state sur­veil­lance powers?”

I speak reg­u­larly at inter­na­tional events about basic freedoms, civil liber­ties and encroach­ing police states, and this is one of the most fre­quently asked questions.

This ques­tion is usu­ally posed in the con­text of the ubi­quit­ous CCTV cam­eras that infest the streets of Bri­tain, where it is estim­ated that you can be pho­to­graphed hun­dreds of times a day going about your daily busi­ness in London. 

DroneNot to men­tion the talk­ing CCTV cam­eras in the North of Eng­land, nor the increas­ing use of spy drones (as yet, reportedly, unweapon­ised — at least leth­ally)  over the skies of Bri­tain.  Nor the fact that the police officers in charge of CCTV units admit that the tech­no­logy is only use­ful as evid­ence in 3% of cases, and that viol­ent crime has actu­ally gone up since the spread of CCTV, so we’re cer­tainly no safer on our streets.

Nor do the well-meaning people ask­ing this ques­tion (who, one pre­sumes, have never-ever done any­thing wrong in their lives, even to the extent of not drop­ping lit­ter) seem to grasp the his­tor­ical evid­ence: they retain an optim­istic faith in the long-term benign inten­tions of our governments.

Yet as we’ve seen time and time again in his­tory, more dubi­ous, total­it­arian and malig­nant gov­ern­ments can indeed gain power, and will abuse and extend the sur­veil­lance laws and avail­able tech­no­logy against their own peoples.  And I’m not just talk­ing about Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s or the East Ger­man Stasi, although I’m in agree­ment with UK Edu­ca­tion Sec­ret­ary Michael Gove at the moment in say­ing that his­tory les­sons are never a waste.…

Big_Brother_posterBut we also need to learn more recent les­sons: the UK in the 1970s-1990s, where the Irish com­munity as a whole was tar­geted because of fringe Repub­lican ter­ror­ism; or the Muslim com­munity post-9/11, which lives with the real fear of of being arres­ted, extraordin­ar­ily rendered, tor­tured, or even assas­sin­ated on the say-so of unac­count­able intel­li­gence agen­cies; or even peace­ful protest groups in the USA and UK who are infilt­rated and aggress­ively invest­ig­ated by Stasi-like police officers.

The Uni­ver­sal Declar­a­tion of Human Rights was put in place for a very good reason in 1948: to pre­vent the hor­rors of state ter­ror­ism, viol­ence and gen­o­cide from ever hap­pen­ing again.  Amongst the essen­tial, internationally-agreed core prin­ciples are the right to life, the right not to be tor­tured, free­dom of expres­sion, and the right to indi­vidual privacy. 

Which brings me neatly back to the start of this art­icle.  This is pre­cisely why increas­ing state sur­veil­lance is a prob­lem.  Because of the post-9/11, over-inflated, hyped-up threat from soi-disant ter­ror­ist groups, we are all being pen­al­ised.  The bal­ance of power is shift­ing over­whelm­ingly in favour of the Big Brother state.

Well, almost.  The Wikileaks model is help­ing to level the play­ing field, and whatever hap­pens to this trail-blazing organ­isa­tion, the prin­ciples and tech­no­logy are out there and will be rep­lic­ated.  The genie can­not be put back in the bottle.

So, why not pose the very ques­tion in the title of this piece back on those who want to turn back the clock and erad­ic­ate Wikileaks — the gov­ern­ments, mega-corporations, and intel­li­gence agen­cies which have been outed, shamed and embar­rassed, and which are now try­ing to sup­press its work?

If you’ve done noth­ing wrong, you have noth­ing to hide.….


Bleat: the assassination of dissidents

Black_sheep?OK, so I’m not sure if my concept of Bleats (half blog, half tweet) is being grasped whole­heartedly.  But so what — it makes me laugh and the Black Sheep shall perservere with a short blog post.….

So I’m a bit puzzled here.  UK Prime Min­is­ter Dave Cameron is quoted in today’s Daily Tele­graph as say­ing that:

It is not accept­able to have a situ­ation where Col­onel Gad­dafi can be mur­der­ing his own people using aero­planes and heli­copter gun­ships and the like and we have to plan now to make sure if that hap­pens we can do some­thing to stop it.”

But do his Amer­ican best bud­dies share that, umm, humane view?  First of all they have the CIA assas­sin­a­tion list which includes the names of US cit­izens (ie its own people); then those same “best bud­dies” may well resort to assas­sin­at­ing Wikileaks’s Julian Assange, prob­ably the most high pro­file dis­sid­ent in inter­na­tional and dip­lo­matic circles at the moment; plus they are already waging remote drone war­fare on many hap­less Middle East­ern coun­tries — Yeman, Afgh­anistan, Pakistan.….

Oh, and now the UK gov­ern­ment seems poised to launch cov­ert spy drones into the skies of Bri­tain.  Even the UK’s most right-wing main­stream news­pa­pers, the Daily Tele­graph and the Daily Mail, expressed con­cern about this today.  Appar­ently these drones have yet to be weapon­ised.….

It’s a slip­pery slope down to an Orwellian nightmare.

 

Spy drones coming soon to a place near you.

For a long time now I have been giv­ing speak­ing out at con­fer­ences and in inter­views around the world about the encroach­ing nature of our sur­veil­lance states. 

One aspect of this, the endemic CCTV cov­er­age in the UK, is notori­ous inter­na­tion­ally. Not only the estim­ated 4 mil­lion+ pub­lic CCTV cam­eras on Brit­ish streets, but also all the traffic cam­eras and private secur­ity cam­eras that sneak a peak onto our pub­lic spaces too.  As if that were not enough, earlier this year it was also repor­ted that local coun­cils are invest­ing in mobile CCTV smart spy cars too.

Addi­tion­ally, of course, we had the issue of Google Street View invad­ing our pri­vacy, and the cam­era cars also just happened to coin­cid­ent­ally hoover up the private inter­net traffic of those too trust­ing to lock their wire­less inter­net access.  Unlike the UK, the Ger­mans have thank­fully said a robust “nein” to Google’s plan.

All this, as I’ve pre­vi­ously noted, des­pite the fact that the head of the Met­ro­pol­itan Police depart­ment respons­ible for pro­cessing all this sur­veil­lance inform­a­tion went on the record to say that CCTV evid­ence is use­less in help­ing to solve all but 3% of crimes, and those merely minor.  In fact, since CCTV has been rolled out nation­ally, viol­ent crime on the streets of Bri­tain has not notice­ably reduced.

But, hey, who cares about facts when secur­ity is Big Busi­ness?  Someone, some­where, is get­ting very rich by rolling out ever more Orwellian sur­veil­lance technology. 

Talking_CCTV_CameraOn the streets of Bri­tain, it is get­ting pro­gress­ively worse.  Audi­ences across Europe and North Amer­ica have respon­ded with shocked laughter when I have men­tioned that police tri­als had been con­duc­ted in the UK using talk­ing CCTV cam­eras that barked orders at appar­ent transgressors.

In 2007 Middles­brough, a town in the north east of the UK with a zero-tolerance policy, began a trial using these talk­ing cam­eras.  In line with a gov­ern­ment review of civil liber­ties this year, it was repor­ted over the sum­mer that the use of these cam­eras might be phased out.  Need­less to say, the coun­cil is fight­ing a fierce rear­guard action against the removal of talk­ing CCTV — an obvi­ous example of the inher­ent dif­fi­culty of try­ing to wrest estab­lished power from the authorities.

Then earlier this year it emerged that vari­ous Brit­ish police forces and the Ser­i­ous Organ­ised Crime Agency (SOCA),  have ordered military-style drones to spy on the cit­izenry from the skies.  One drone man­u­fac­turer said that there had been enquir­ies about the poten­tial for mil­it­ar­isa­tion of these drones: thank­fully, his response was repor­ted as fol­lows in The Guardian:

Military_drone“Mark Lawrence, dir­ector of Air Robot UK, said: “UAVs will, to an extent, replace heli­copters. Our air robots cost £30,000 com­pared with £10m for a fully equipped mod­ern heli­copter. We have even been asked to put weapons on them but I’m not inter­ested in get­ting involved in that.”

How­ever, Wired has repor­ted that “non-lethal” weapons could be installed, to facil­it­ate crowd control.

There is also the other side of the secur­ity coin to con­sider, of course.  If these drones are imple­men­ted in the skies of Bri­tain, how soon before some enter­pris­ing young “Al Qaeda” cadre cot­tons on to the idea that this could be an effect­ive way to launch an attack?  So much for all our won­der­fully effect­ive air­port secur­ity measures.

UK_Police_DronePlus, these little air­borne pests will prove to be a real haz­ard for other air­craft, as has already been noted.

Des­pite all this, no wide­spread indig­na­tion has been voiced by the UK pop­u­la­tion.  When will the tip­ping point be reached about this incip­i­ent Orwellian nightmare?

But hope may be at hand.  A some­what frivol­ous art­icle appeared today, stat­ing that small spy drones will become the new paparazzi: Ver­sion 2.0, no doubt.

Per­haps, finally, we shall now see some mean­ing­ful oppos­i­tion to this encroach­ing Big Brother state. 

Once Bono, Sting, Saint Bob and the assembled celeb corps get on their high horses about their enshrined, fun­da­mental right to pri­vacy, it might finally become fash­ion­able to dis­cuss the very basic prin­ciples under­pin­ning our civilisation.….

.…you remem­ber, those fuddy-duddy ideas like the right to life, not to be tor­tured, not to be unlaw­fully imprisoned or kid­napped, free speech, fair tri­als, free con­science etc .…. oh, and pri­vacy of course!

The Real Reason for the Police State?

DroneI haven’t writ­ten here for a while, des­pite the embar­ras de richesses that has been presen­ted to us in the news recently: Dame Stella say­ing that the UK is becom­ing a police state;  drones will patrol the streets of Bri­tain, watch­ing our every move; data­bases are being built, con­tain­ing all our elec­tronic com­mu­nic­a­tions; ditto all our travel move­ments. What can a lone blog­ger use­fully add to this?  Only so much hot air — the facts speak for themselves.

Plus, I’ve been a bit caught up over the last couple of months with Oper­a­tion Escape Pod. Not all of us are sit­ting around wait­ing for the prison gates to clang shut on the UK. I’m outta here!

But I can’t res­ist an inter­est­ing art­icle in The Spec­tator magazine this week. And that’s a sen­tence I never thought I would write in my life.

Tim Ship­man, quot­ing a pleth­ora of anonym­ous intel­li­gence sources and former spooks, asserts that Britain’s for­eign policy is being skewed by the need to pla­cate our intel­li­gence allies, and that the CIA is roam­ing free in the wilds of Yorkshire.

His sources tell him that the UK is a “swamp” of Islamic extrem­ism, and that the domestic spies are ter­ri­fied that there will be a new ter­ror­ist atro­city, prob­ably against US interests but it could be any­where, car­ried out by our very own home-grown ter­ror­ists. Accord­ing to Ship­man, this ter­rible pro­spect had all the spooks busily down­ing trebles in the bars around Vaux­hall Cross in the wake of the Mum­bai bombings.

Apart from the sug­ges­tion that the spies’ drink­ing cul­ture appears to be as robust as ever, I find this inter­est­ing because well-sourced spook spin is more likely to appear in the august pages of The Speccie than in, say, Red Pep­per. But if this is an accur­ate reflec­tion of the think­ing of our politi­cians and intel­li­gence com­munity, then this is an extremely wor­ry­ing devel­op­ment. It goes a long way to explain­ing why the UK has become the most policed state in the West­ern world.

Yes, in the 1990s the UK prac­tised a strategy of appease­ment towards Islamic extrem­ists. MI5’s view was always that it was bet­ter to give rad­ic­als a safe haven in the UK, which they would then be loathe to attack dir­ectly, and where a close eye could be kept on them.

This, of course, was derailed by Blair’s Mes­si­anic mis­sion in the Middle East. By uni­lat­er­ally sup­port­ing Bush’s adven­tur­ism in Afgh­anistan and Iraq, in the teeth of stark warn­ings about the attend­ant risks from the head of MI5, Bri­tain has become “the enemy” in the eyes of rad­ical Islam. The gloves are off, and we are all at greater risk because of our former PM’s hubris.

But now we appar­ently have free-range CIA officers infilt­rat­ing the Muslim com­munit­ies of the UK.  No doubt Mossad is also again secretly  tol­er­ated, des­pite the fact that they had been banned for years from oper­at­ing in the UK because they were too unpre­dict­able (a civil ser­vice euphem­ism for violent).

And I am will­ing to bet that this inter­na­tional per­cep­tion that UK spooks will be caught off-guard by an appar­ently British-originated ter­ror­ist attack is the reason for the slew of new total­it­arian laws that are mak­ing us all sus­pects. The drones, the datamin­ing and the dra­conian stop-and-search laws are designed to reas­sure our invalu­able allies in the CIA, Mossad, ISI and the FSB.  They will not be put in place to “pro­tect” us.

CCTV doesn’t prevent crime

So, the argu­ment about CCTV and our big brother soci­ety rumbles on. A senior police­man, Detect­ive Chief Inspector Mick Neville of the Visual Images, Iden­ti­fic­a­tions and Detec­tions Office (Viido) at New Scot­land Yard, has been quoted as say­ing that only 3 per cent of crimes have been solved by CCTV evid­ence. Des­pite the UK hav­ing the highest per cap­ita num­ber of CCTVs in the world, this brave new world has failed to make us safer.

A few other police forces, and nat­ur­ally the secur­ity com­pan­ies flog­ging the kit, say that CCTV has at least dra­mat­ic­ally reduced oppor­tun­istic crimes. Who should we believe?

What can­not be dis­puted is the fact that there are well over 4,000,000 CCTVs in this coun­try, and the organ­isa­tion, Pri­vacy Inter­na­tional, assesses that we are the most watched cit­izenry in Europe.

While some law-abiding cit­izens say they feel intim­id­ated by CCTV and how the inform­a­tion could poten­tially be mis­used, most people seem not to care. In fact, the major­ity appar­ently feel safer if they can see CCTV on the streets, even if this per­vas­ive sur­veil­lance has in no way dis­cour­aged crimes of viol­ence. So why this gap between per­cep­tion and reality?

One of my pet the­or­ies has always been to blame Big Brother. No, not the book. I have always been flum­moxed by the pop­ular­ity of the TV show and the pleth­ora of real­ity TV spin-offs. My instinct­ive reac­tion was that it was sim­ilar to being “groomed” to accept round-the-clock intru­sion into our per­sonal lives. More than accept – desire it. The clear mes­sage is that such sur­veil­lance can lead to instant fame, wealth and access to the Z-list parties of Lon­don. And for that we are sleep-walking into a real Orwellian nightmare.

Slightly flip­pant the­or­ies aside, it is inter­est­ing that one of the most cited examples of the need for CCTV was the Bish­opsgate bomb­ing in Lon­don in 1993. In this case a lorry bomb, filled with a tonne of home made explos­ive (HME) was det­on­ated in the heart of the city of Lon­don by the IRA. One per­son was killed, many were injured, and hun­dreds of mil­lions of pounds worth of dam­age was caused, not to men­tion the fact threat the IRA scored a huge pub­li­city coup.

But this had noth­ing to do with the lack or oth­er­wise of CCTV in the streets of the City. It was an intel­li­gence fail­ure, pure and simple.

This attack could and should have been pre­ven­ted. It occurred while I was work­ing in MI5, and it was widely known in the ser­vice at the time that the bomber should have been arres­ted six months before dur­ing a sur­veil­lance oper­a­tion. Des­pite the fact that he was seen check­ing out another lorry bomb in stor­age, he was allowed to walk free and escape to the Repub­lic of Ire­land due to pro­ced­ural cock-ups. Months later, he returned to the City and bombed Bishopsgate.

By rely­ing increas­ingly on tech­no­lo­gies to pro­tect us, we are fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of the Amer­ic­ans. They have always had an over-reliance on gad­gets and giz­mos when seek­ing to invest­ig­ate crim­in­als and ter­ror­ists: satel­lite track­ing, phone taps, bugs. But this hoover­ing up of inform­a­tion is never an adequate replace­ment for pre­cise invest­ig­at­ive work. Plus, any crim­inal or ter­ror­ist worth their salt these days knows not to dis­cuss sens­it­ive plans electronically.

Scatter-gun approaches to gath­er­ing intel­li­gence, such as blanket sur­veil­lance, still at this stage require human beings to pro­cess and assess it for evid­en­tial use. That, accord­ing to DCI Neville, is part of the prob­lem. There is just too much com­ing in, not enough staff, insuf­fi­cient co-operation between forces, and the job lacks per­ceived status within the police.

The other prob­lem of an over-reliance on tech­no­logy is that it can always be hacked. The most recent hack­ing has broken the RFID chips that we all carry in our pass­ports, Oyster cards and the planned ID cards. New tech­no­lo­gies can­not guar­an­tee that our per­sonal data is secure, so rather than pro­tect­ing us, they make us more liable to crimes such as iden­tity theft.

So once again national and local gov­ern­ment bod­ies have rushed to buy up tech­no­logy, without fully think­ing through either its applic­a­tion or its use­ful­ness. And without fully assess­ing the implic­a­tions for a free soci­ety. Just because the tech­no­logy exists, it does not mean that it is fit for pur­pose, nor that it will make us safer.