Tag Archives: Shami Chakrabarti

Scrambling for Safety Conference 2012: Data Gathering – What are the benefits?

Yesterday I attended the Scrambling for Safety conference at the LSE.
 I was really impressed by the wide range of speakers,
 from the leader of human rights group Liberty Shami Chakrabarti to the Conservative MP David Davis. Finally a real discussion featuring voices from a wide range 
of political and ideological affiliations, although noting the 
absence of any Labour politicians. It was a 
bit less exciting when I realised they all seemed to agree…

The members of the panel talked about the importance of privacy and the negative implications of the invasion of privacy. They also agreed, particularly Julian Huppert and David Davis MP, that politicians generally do 
not have a clue and often take advice from civil servants and security officials as fact. They often seem to rely on information without attempting to validate or research it themselves, probably due to the volume of information that relates to many issues. But what I really wanted to know was how much would it cost? Is it even viable or productive? 
Would it in any way benefit the general public in a way that would 
justify such an invasion of privacy? If not, why on earth was this 
happening? If stronger policies on surveillance are indeed necessary
 what are the alternatives?

Some light was shed on these questions in the second panel, who could not identify 
any real benefit of swamping the police with massive amounts of data
 and the chaos which would ensue as a result. Data gathering on such a
 large scale does not seem to make sense at all. If the government’s plans to combat serious crime and terrorism with these measures, this shows a clear lack of foresight. The panel emphasized that gathering data in this way would only catch very basic internet users, as there are so many 
ways to hide the data being picked up, such as using encrypted pages.
 Monitoring basic internet use, when more advanced users (you don’t 
need to be very advanced to use dropbox for example) know a way
 around it, would encourage a culture of “underground internet use”. This would only complicate things for the police/security 
services. It is also a waste of money and resources to invest in a 
policy that is fundamentally ineffective and extremely invasive of basic
 rights and freedoms. The costs are therefore certainly not outweighed by
 the benefits, which seem negligible if there even are any.

Whitfield Diffie, somewhat of a celebrity in the tech world, so I was told, addressed the issue of privacy of search terms such as e.g. divorce lawyers or cancer clinics which may be largely indicative of your private life. By accessing an individual’s search data the government would be enforcing a huge invasion of privacy, but it would also be largely counter productive and irrelevant to the police regarding surveillance matters.

A retired police officer in the 
audience stated that it appears the government are seeking to implement preemptive measures. Such data is often unusable and overwhelming to the police force
 because of the sheer volume. Analysing such data is complex and time 
consuming and thus provides little value in many investigations which
 need to be carried out swiftly. He gave the example of the recent
 shootings in Tolouse – France, where police had access to 500 intercepted email messages 
which provided a lead to the suspect. However the manpower to analyse and identify suspects in pressing operations will not always be
 available in relation to processing data. The police may not have enough people assigned to a particular case to be able to go through all the available data.

The conference was wrapped up by Nick Pickles from Big Brother Watch, who ended the day with a quote from David Cameron criticising Labour’s policies on surveillance. He pointed out that the coalition government must keep their word, something I fully agree with. He then added that he was standing for the Conservatives in the next election, making his short speech seem a little more like a self interested campaign. However the fact that the organisers were from a wide variety of civil society organisations allowed a broad discussion on an issue that affects everyone regardless of their political affiliation.

The main arguments made at the conference, appeared to be that the proposal is not only a gross invasion of fundamental rights and freedoms in both national and European law, but that it is also both costly and ineffective. The plan seems to be based on a misinformed and misguided policy relating to security, which doesn’t seem to provide any benefit to government, the police or national security. While this issue could have huge negative consequences it is still barely understood by either government or the public.

Shami Chakrabarti used the quote “they say the innocent have nothing to hide – but they do have something to protect”. At present there is little legislation relating to privacy law in the UK and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) – the right to a private and family life, is often loosely applied. The Scrambling for Safety conference highlighted the fact that even current law on communications remains highly contentious. The proposed casual and constant invasion of privacy is not in the public interest, neither in terms of security nor cost. The proposal is unrealistic and inappropriate, what is really needed in the UK are stronger privacy laws/rights to protect our freedom and to fully integrate and apply Article 8 of the ECHR in national law.

Police for Hire!

The Metropolitan Police has come under fire after it emerged Richard Branson’s Virgin company paid the Met  police £5,060 towards carrying out an investigation involving Virgin’s TV boxes.

Richard Branson founder of Virgin

After the convictions of 3 defendants in a recent fraud case, it became apparent that Virgin Media paid the police for overtime to conduct raids in east London. The police raids aimed to prove that viewers were using Virgin television boxes without paying for the channels they were watching. The scam would have potentially allowed thousands of viewers to avoid paying fees, costing Virgin millions of pounds.

The issue here, is not whether fraud was being committed by these individuals, but whether it is correct for investigations conducted by the Metropolitan police to be funded by private corporations, who have a direct interest in the operation. The raids were clearly not a priority in terms of the gravity of the crime, therefore the attention given to the case appears to have been induced by money rather than importance. The police raids, which were carried out in east London in 2008, netted 5,000 set-top boxes and £90,000 in cash. Three men were convicted and imprisoned as a result. However, one of the men is now seeking to quash his conviction on the grounds that the police only investigated him because of the money offered by Virgin.

The private work of public services, at a time when public services are already stretched, is alarming. How common are such practices in the Met police?  This information has come to light at a difficult time for the Met police, which has been facing widespread criticism for its handling of the riots and its role in the recent bribery scandal involving Sun journalists. The cuts to the police force are most likely going to stretch their capacity further, and these practices could be harmful by taking away from the high demand for policing across London. Jenny Jones, Green Party mayoral candidate and member in the London Assembly, voiced her concerns on the issue:

“It’s like private policing and I am really shocked that somebody thought this was OK. The police should not accept huge payments from wealthy companies to investigate crimes on their behalf.”

Jenny Jones

She added that this kind of practice could have a detrimental effect on the role taken by the Met Police in tackling serious crime.

“It means such paid work could take priority over murder, rape or child abuse cases, which would distort the Met’s priorities for London.”

Ms Jones stated that she will raise the issue with the Met Commissioner and the deputy mayor for policing.

A Virgin Media spokeswoman said that the joint operation between Virgin Media and the Metropolitan Police, was in accordance with the Police Act 1996. She also claimed that details of the arrangement were fully disclosed in court. The written agreement Between the police authority and Virgin, also guaranteed the Met a ‘cash donation.’ This would amount to 25 per cent of any compensation awarded to Virgin, following a successful conviction over the fraud.

Civil rights groups have accused the police of being selective in their treatment of victims of crime. Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said:

“Times may be tough but that’s no excuse for turning the police into hired guns for those wealthy enough to pursue crimes against them.”

She added that being motivated by money could affect the way that police prioritise their actions in terms of payment and neglect those in need.

“Taking a percentage of a victim’s remuneration is bad enough but even worse is the thought of those in greatest need of protection being turned away in favour of those who can afford to pay.”

As a public service, should it be possible to hire the police for carrying out investigations on behalf of large companies? These practises open the door for murky behaviour by a service that should serve the public interest and uphold the law. It seems to go against the principles of transparency if you can hire the police, in the same way that companies hire mercenaries in failed states, to act on your behalf provided you can pay them. The police must be entirely independent from the influence of private enterprise, in order to sufficiently uphold the law. The police work to protect the public and keep a degree of order, they are not to be used as cheap labour that carry out specific assignments in the interest of and funded by private corporations. 

The Met declined to comment for legal reasons.