Securing democracy requires trust, biometrics commissioner warns new UK taskforce
“As almost all of our technological capability is in private ownership, the people we trust (police, emergency services, local and national government) must be able to trust their surveillance partners or we are in a lot of trouble, not just as a sector but as a society,” writes the UK Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner, Fraser Sampson, in a letter to the Minister for Security, Tom Tugendhat, in response to the minister establishing a taskforce to “defend the democratic integrity of our country.”
The commissioner warns of the reliance on Chinese surveillance firms that are resisting scrutiny and accountability which he believes should forfeit any further involvement with the democratic institutions to be protected.
On 1 November, Tugendhat announced that the prime minister had asked him to lead a taskforce. He tells the House of Commons the taskforce “will work with Parliament, Departments, the security and intelligence agencies, the devolved Administrations and the private sector,” as reported in Hansard, the transcript of Parliament, to defend the institutions of democracy, including online discussion.
Tugendhat is presumably referring to the latest prime minister, Rishi Sunak, who had taken up the position a week earlier. Four days into his job, the Mail on Sunday broke the news that the previous prime minister, Liz Truss, had had her phone hacked by agents suspected to be linked to the Kremlin while foreign secretary.
“A generation ago, we had the answer: our technology and our wallets were greater than theirs,” said Tugendhat, “Today, technological integration has deepened connections and opened doors into areas of our lives that we once thought closed.”
The Minister for Security described how the National Security Bill, currently before the House, will be the “most significant piece of legislation to tackle the incursion of state-based threats to our nation in a century.”
The Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner wants assurance that this will be done in a way that builds trust where it involves surveillance and biometrics. Sampson wrote to Tugendhat the very next day, no doubt concerned about the potential for increased surveillance.
The letter, published two weeks later, revisits the points that surveillance equipment in use in the UK has been built by Chinese companies linked to the Chinese state and involved in the near total surveillance of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
Sampson states hope for upcoming legislation such as the National Security and Investment Act 2021 and the Public Procurement Bill, both before Parliament.
“If we are to get the most from surveillance technology, it will need a systemic approach to regulation focusing on integrity – of both technology and practice – along with clear standards for everything and everyone involved because, in a systemic setting, if you contaminate part, you contaminate the whole,” writes Sampson.
“Biometric surveillance capability in its widest sense could revolutionise our public services: at the same time, the manner in which that technology is used could jeopardise our very model of policing, local and national government and the societal values on which it is founded.”
Sampson reiterates that the public must be able to trust whatever systems are put in place and concludes that the “role of public space surveillance and those that provide it has itself become a part of our critical national infrastructure and I would encourage your task force to take this into account at the outset.”
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