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Pistols drawn as UK surveillance state duels with rights groups

UK government’s great eye grows but axing oversight body could prove a mistake
Pistols drawn as UK surveillance state duels with rights groups

As the UK pushes forward with digital surveillance projects, the chorus of voices weighing in on the legal, ethical and practical aspects of its approach grows louder. Having scrapped its Office for the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner with the implementation of the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill, the government now finds itself wading in a quagmire of evangelism, objection and piecemeal oversight. For now, it remains in the shallows. But it does not appear to be heading toward the shore.

Is this the IPA? I thought it was the UK

In a feature for TechRadar, writer Chiara Castro puts the spotlight on the Investigatory Powers Act (IPA) of 2016 and an amendment that would broaden digital surveillance capabilities, ostensibly in the interest of public safety. The King has approved the act, but tech watchdogs and privacy advocates have not: a letter signed by 26 rights groups, including Open Rights Group, Privacy International, Liberty, Big Brother Watch, and Index on Censorship, says the Investigatory Powers (Amendment) Bill “weakens safeguards when intelligence services collect bulk datasets of personal information, potentially allowing them to harvest millions of facial images and social media data.”

Robin Wilton, director of the Internet Society, tells Castro that “from a civil society perspective, the IPA and its amendments are a problem because they enable suspicionless mass surveillance.” Language in the amendment would expand the definition of Bulk Personal Datasets (BPDs) to include a new category of personal data, which law enforcement can collect when “the individual has low to no reasonable expectation of privacy,” as in the case of public CCTV cameras or social media accounts.

There is also a somewhat counterintuitive requirement for tech companies to seek approval from the Home Office before adding new security or privacy features.

Wilton says that “for the Government to be weakening the safeguards for personal data, in an era when we know that data mining and machine learning are constantly finding new ways to interpret and act on personal data, is irresponsible, and dangerously short-sighted.”’

I wanna be FRT: facial recognition roils sport, retail, rights groups

The use of facial recognition technology is proving to be a particularly contentious subplot of the larger surveillance story. With face biometrics gaining traction for large event use cases, UK police recently alerted Tottenham Hotspur football club of a potential live facial recognition deployment to monitor the public highway on match day. Representatives of the team and its fans raised concerns with police and were told that the high volume of attendance expected for the North London Derby match with Arsenal prompted the deployment.

Retail environments are also proving to be a major arena in the facial recognition debate. The government recently pledged £55 million to expand facial recognition systems across major retail outlets in England and Wales in an effort to fight shoplifting – what Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, calls an “abysmal waste of public money on dangerously authoritarian and inaccurate facial recognition surveillance.”

“Criminals should be brought to justice – but papering over the cracks of broken policing with Orwellian tech is not a solution,” Carlo says. “Live facial recognition may be commonplace in China but these Government plans put the UK completely out of sync with the rest of the democratic world.”

There is already concern that British law enforcement officials are overstepping legal bounds. The Guardian reports on a French publisher who was wrongfully arrested in London on his way to a book fair, raising fears that police are using would-be counterterrorism surveillance measures to track political activists. Ernest Moret, 29, is set to be awarded a five figure sum from the Metropolitan Police in a settlement, on the grounds that “the stop was neither necessary nor proportionate.”

EES rules on biometric data collection could cause anarchy in the UK

Meanwhile, evidence suggests many British citizens are unaware of the scope of changes to surveillance practices happening just outside their border. The Connexion France reports on a survey showing that almost two thirds of Britons do not know about new border checks scheduled to start in tandem with the rollout of the EU’s automated Entry/Exit System (EES). Under the system, travelers from the UK over 12 will have their name, age, face and fingerprint biometrics recorded and retained for up to three years.

The retention period is a point of consternation for British citizens who do know about the changes coming with the EES. So are potential border delays – also a bugbear for travel and tourism companies that don’t want prohibitive friction added to their customers’ travel experience. Their argument is that the justification for using facial recognition is weak, since illegal immigrants or terrorists coming from the UK are not a threat to France. But what is justified or not in terms of facial recognition is in constant churn, as policy continues to chase technological advance.

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