Yesterday I used the Internet as follows:

  1. Sent and received 81 emails, of which 58 related to council and ward work, 10 related to my non-council work and 13 were to friends and family
  2. Visited pages at BBC News, Department of Communities and Local Government, London School of Economics, Local Government Information Unit, Angry People in Local Papers, Literature and Latte, The Guardian, Wikipedia, Liverpool Council and YouTube
  3. Downloading an application from the Mac App Store (Byword, it’s excellent.)
  4. Automatic back-up using an offsite service.
  5. Syncing my Dropbox folder (a great free service, sign up with this link and we both get a bit extra for free.)

I’m sure this information is as interesting to you as it is useful to the security of the nation.

Without knowing the content of those emails it’s both boring and useless. I might have emailed my wife about my secret plan to blow up the Thames riverside by igniting sewage gases.

Or I might have dropped her a line to let her know a delivery had arrived.

Of course, if the security services knew I needed monitoring they could apply for a warrant to see the content: but that’s exactly what they do now.

The proposals seem to amount to little more than a massive intrusion into privacy with the only benefit being to save the security services (and a lot more) a little administrative effort. And all the while using the excuse of national security; overlooking that nasty scary things like terrorism seem to have declined without a police state in any case.

The idea of the state having access to our emails and internet activity without independent oversight should shock everyone to the core. You might trust the current government with this information, you might not. But what about the next government, or the one after that? The principle of personal freedom and liberty is an absolute.

Even assuming our traditions of liberal democracy counter the potential of authoritarian government it is a worrying intrusion of our privacy and contrary to the notion that we are a free, liberal democracy. I am astounded that the proposal comes from a government that should be respecting and promoting the primacy of the individual over the state. I know there can be an authoritarian streak in the Conservatives, but thought one of the benefits of the coalition was the Liberal Democrats would check it.

What troubles me most of all, however, is the number of people who are so used to this sort of erosion of civil liberties that they not only trot out the ‘nothing to hide’ line, they even believe the surveillance of a populace is the price to be paid for security. As dangerous as the all-powerful state is, a submissive population that does not value its rights is worse.

CCTVOnce again the issue of CCTV has raised it’s head. This time it is as a result of a ‘Big Brother Watch’ press release that, I believe, totally misses the real point.

I’m afraid I don’t have a lot of sympathy for BBW (and don’t put that into Google at work). They are an offshoot of the Tax Payers’ Alliance, an organisation that, as everyone’s mother said, know the price of everything and the value of nothing. For an organisation that really cares about civil liberties I’d suggest you go to Liberty – a truly excellent organisation.

BBW put in Freedom of Information requests to 100 councils asking for the number of cameras and a copy of internal guidance. As far as I can see they don’t seem to have done anything with the guidance they received from Wandsworth or any other borough.

And that’s strange, since they acknowledge in their final report that “there is obviously a role to play for technology in general, and CCTV in particular, in law enforcement and we are not opposed to CCTV per se.”

Yet they put out a press release that condemns councils purely for the number of cameras they have and not how they use them.

It seems to me that one camera improperly used is far more dangerous than hundreds of thousands of well-regulated cameras. Which is why I’m disappointed they didn’t bother to mention that Wandsworth has a strict CCTV code of conduct which prevents use of the cameras on private areas, or that our operators are trained, hold the appropriate SIA qualifications and regularly checked by the Criminal Records Bureau.

I’m also disappointed that they didn’t bother to find out that around half the criminal cases brought in the borough use CCTV evidence, or that they didn’t ask to hear about any of the crimes our operators have prevented, or helped the police rapidly apprehend the suspects through use of the CCTV network.

And because they didn’t enquire, we weren’t able to tell them about the way the police use our CCTV to help them in targeted investigations either by working with our camera operators or putting police officers into our control room.

And it was silent on the fact that Wandsworth is inner London’s safest borough, partly due to intelligent, controlled and pro-active use of CCTV.

CCTV is not the issue, the use to which it is put is the issue. The last time this cropped up and I ended up discussing this with Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti it was clear that the issue is not councils or public authorities that are the problem – they are well regulated and use high quality equipment. The problem are the shops, pubs and clubs that use the equipment without proper regulation, or re-use tapes so often they become useless. But, of course, they aren’t covered by Freedom of Information and don’t make for an easy Daily Mail headline.

I’ve touched on police powers to stop and search a couple of times in the past. Once when I was subject to a stop – but not a search – around a year ago (although I posted about it some months later, prompted by section 76 of the Counter Terrorism Act coming into force) and again last May when the number s44 searches undertaken featured on the BBC News website.

I’ve been sat on the last statistical release from the Home Office (opens a PDF) for a while, it was covered on the BBC News website nearly three weeks ago but was prompted to dig it out by a recent YouTube video of someone being stopped for filming in London. I’m not going into any of the claims made in the film or the webpage about her treatment (nor comment on the music choice) but like the majority of those stopped under s44 – she’s innocent.

Section 44 allows a police constable in uniform to carry out a stop and search without any suspicion. According to the Home Office figures during 2008/9 there were 256,026 stop and searches and 95% of these were by the Metropolitan or British Transport Police. Essentially London is by far the place you are most likely to be stopped.

The Home Office reports that 1,452 arrests were made after a s44 stop and search – this represents 0.6% of the total. What it remains totally silent on is how many of these arrests were for terrorism related offences. My guess would be that that vast majority, if not all, were for other offences (possession of drugs or a knife, for example) discovered during a search.

The figures for s43 are no better. Section 43 is different to s44 in that it requires suspicion. The act states in s43(1) “A constable may stop and search a person whom he reasonably suspects to be a terrorist to discover whether he has in his possession anything which may constitute evidence that he is a terrorist.”

As you might expect there were fewer stop and searches under s43, just 1,643 by the Metropolitan Police. But despite the requirement that reasonable suspicion is required just 1.5% of these resulted in an arrest. Again, it remains silent on how many, if any, of these were for terrorism related offences.

So these searches represent a huge intrusion into our civil liberties without it seems, without, it seems, producing much in the way of results. It also represents a huge amount of police time which I would contend could be much better used in other ways.

The Home Office’s release makes a lot of the fact that the number of searches are falling, by 37% between 2008/9 and the first quarter of 2009/10, but this still means there will be something like 160,000 people stopped and searched – and with no reason to think the success rate of these will be any better.

…well, actually, it’s already here.  It’s just that with all the fuss about MPs’ expenses and Susan Boyle everyone stopped paying it attention.  But apparently it’s officially a pandemic now.

One reason why everyone started talking about Susan Boyle is that it transpired that swine ‘flu was actually quite mild.  So mild, in fact, that some speculate there have been many many more cases but people didn’t bother going to the doctors.

I’ve blogged about swine ‘flu on several occasions before, particularly as there was concern about a few cases in Wandsworth, see Don’t panic: swine flu and WandsworthStill don’t panic: Swine flu in Wandsworth and Swine flu II: Press say “panic”.

Wandsworth is well prepared for any potential outbreak with NHS Wandsworth (who would be the lead agency), the council and other partners having well-prepared plans, although at the moment it seems it may cause fewer problems than ordinary seasonal ‘flu.

The council’s emergency page is currently offering swine ‘flu advice.

With the blanket coverage of MPs’ expenses late last week I almost missed a BBC News story about stops under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000

The article contacts a few facts and figures about how effective section 44 has really been.

  • In London during 2008 there were more than 170,000 searches conducted
  • Of these just 65 (0.035%) led to arrests for terror offences
  • The Home Office, Department of Justice and Met are “unable to say” if anyone had been charged or convicted as a result of a search.

They are staggering figures, essentially around 2,600 searches need to be conducted to get one terror related arrest.  You can argue that those 2,600 searches act as a deterrent, but I think there’s a stronger argument that the police time taken to conduct 2,600 searches would be more effectively spent on intelligent policing.

Assuming five minutes and two officers per search my back of the envelope calculation is that, including holidays, it’s about three months of police time for each arrest – and it would seem that those arrests haven’t led to any charges.  You shouldn’t assess police effectiveness on arrests alone, but I can’t help but think it isn’t an effective use of police time.

And the real question, why has a supposed temporary power been in force for eight years when it’s so ineffective?

lavender-hill-police-stationI have tended to shy away from national politics and issues in this blog, keeping it more focused on local and council issues. However, one subject that increasingly concerns me is the erosion of civil liberties in this country. Yesterday saw another little chunk of our freedoms eroded with section 76 of the Counter Terrorism Act coming into force.

Photographers must now be a careful they don’t get the police in their photos for fear of arrest.

I have an interest in this because I have already (late last year, before s76 was in force) been stopped by the police for taking a photo.  I was on Lavender Hill and my sin was to get a police car in a photo taken near Lavender Hill police station.  Four officers questioned me because, apparently, my behaviour was suspicious – something I refused to acknowledge (though I would later admit it was a truly awful photo, bad framing and a bit of camera shake).  I suppose you could argue that Al-Qaeda don’t realise those white cars with orange stripes are the police.  I think it a bit unlikely.

This is already a remarkably common occurence.  Within days of being stopped myself, I heard, through friends, of two other people who had been stopped and searched under section 44 of the Terrorism Act for taking photos at Clapham Junction.  It seems that even before section 76 you had to be worried if you were innocently taking a photo.

I would stress I do not blame the police for this.  They have to act according to the laws the government makes, and they have to fulfil their targets.  The people I do blame are the government.  And I’m not alone in this – Stella Rimington, a former head of MI5, today saying that Ministers are using the fear of terror to restrict civil liberties.  One of her comments deserves quoting in full:

It would be better that the government recognised that there are risks, rather than frightening people in order to be able to pass laws which restrict civil liberties, precisely one of the objects of terrorism – that we live in fear and under a police state

Now you can argue that, of course, they aren’t going to be stopping the innocent tourist or hobbyist photographer.  So what’s the point of the power?  I’m guessing the average terrorist tries to blend in rather than look like a terrrorist, which implies the police are either going to have to question lots of innocent people in the hope of catching a terrorist, or they are going to have to rely on other intelligence.  If the latter is the case, then why do they need powers like those given under the Terrorism Act 2000 and the Counter Terrorism Act 2008?

Many years ago I would have said that a police state could never happen in this country.  Nowadays, it seems the Blair and Brown governments don’t just want to show that it could, they are actually working to make it a reality.