Saturday, March 07, 2009

Watching Us, Watching Them, Watching You

A major "yes, but" argument used by many still involved in trade unions when listening to seemingly irrelevant debates about civil liberties is that such issues, though important, are couched in terms which are either esoteric, or designed to hit the G-spot of the Hampstead liberals. As the jobless figure hits 2 million (officially), with more to be made redundant over the course of this recession, why worry, say some, about CCTV & speed cameras? It's an argument which has held water. Until now: ).
In the week which marks the 25th anniversary of the start of the miners' strike, it's worth noting that the techniques highlighted in the Guardian's report were finessed & professionalised immeasurably during the dispute. Surveillance, of course, has been around since time immemorial. However, the sophistication with which it was carried out from the 80s onwards became a key feature of the UK industrial & political scene.
Inevitably, there's been a human cost in the construction industry's fondness for blacklisting, & it's movingly described in the Guardian's accompanying pieces by those whose livelihoods & family lives were damaged.
Surveillance being the watchword (pardon the pun), it was revealed on the same day that a database is kept on thousands of people who may have been on demonstrations, or been active in campaigns revolving around the environment ( ). The names & personal details of each person on the database remains on file for a minimum of seven years. The Guardian's investigation found that "private information about activists gathered through surveillance is being stored without the knowledge of the people monitored."
Even journalists covering demos, such as the recent one against the third runway at Heathrow Airport, have attracted the Metropolitan Police's attention.
Corrina Ferguson, legal officer for Liberty, was quoted in the article as noting that the police's activities are illegal, contravening Article 8 of the Human Rights Act. Despite this, you may not be surprised to know, there appears to be little or nothing that can be done to halt it.
In a statement which owed a lot to the stilted verbal delivery which has long been characteristic of the police's argot, & an even more stilted attempt to justify illicit acts, the Guardian allowed a senior police officer to hoist himself on his own petard:
"Superintendent David Hartshorn, from the Met's public order branch, conceded law-abiding campaigners were being added to the database. He said individuals on the system included people convicted or suspected of public order offences.
"But he added, 'people we have seen on a regular basis involved but may not have been charged or arrested' were also stored on the database. He added that the data was reviewed every year. 'In relation to what we can keep on databases, we are governed quite strictly on that. Obviously you've got the Data Protection Act but also, interms of intelligence, we have to justify what we are able to keep.' "
Needless to say, Superintendent Hartshorn (who last month seemingly predicted a long, hot summer involving the middle-class), failed to be specific in identifying the body to which justification was required.
I realise that in posting this piece on my blog, Merseyside Police, on behalf of their counterparts at the Met, will take a keen interest in what I have to say. I understand that. I even welcome it. What would be even more welcome would be a post in the comments section from the police, explaining why they are happy to persue this course of action as policy when it contravenes the law. Over to you, chaps.

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