London's Third Wall And Surveillance Function Creep
from the paranoia,-electromagnetism-and-infrastructure dept
The UK is infamous for the Orwellian number of its CCTV cameras dotted around the land. And as the UK is to the world, so London is to the UK, with an even more extreme level of surveillance taking place 24 hours a day, seven days a week. As part of “an investigation into paranoia, electromagnetism, and infrastructure,” James Bridle decided to walk around the inner core of London known as the “Congestion Charge Zone,” which requires all vehicles that enter to pay a fee — the idea being that this will reduce unnecessary traffic and thus air pollution in the capital. For reasons explained in Bridle’s entertaining post, he never made it all the way around the London Congestion Charge Zone’s perimeter, but he did manage to record around half of the surveillance cameras he encountered on his way — all 427 of them — which he turned into an interactive map.
His post explains how those cameras form a “Third London Wall,” next in sequence after the original one built by the Romans in the late second century, and still visible in places today, and the Second London Wall, created on the orders of the City of London Police, following two major bombings by the Provisional Irish Republican Army in the 1990s. The Second Wall consisted of “sentry boxes and roadblocks, with access streets narrowed to chicanes to slow vehicles at designated choke points.” As Bridle notes, that Second London Wall has now been abandoned, or rather subsumed into the more subtle, because largely invisible, Third Wall, based on automated surveillance cameras:
The core technology of the Third Wall, again pioneered but only partially implemented by the Second, is Automated Number Plate Recognition, or ANPR. Installations of over 800 ANPR cameras record the unique ID of every vehicle which enters the Zone in vast databases for later analysis.
Bridle gives what is one of the best descriptions of how surveillance function creep takes place:
When the Wall was initially constructed, the public were informed that this data would only be held, and regularly purged, by Transport for London, who oversee traffic matters in the city. However, within less than five years, the Home Secretary gave the Metropolitan Police full access to this system, which allowed them to take a complete copy of the data produced by the system.
This permission to access the data was granted to the Police on the sole condition that they only used it when National Security was under threat. But since the data was now in their possession, the Police reclassified it as “Crime” data and now use it for general policing matters, despite the wording of the original permission. As this data is not considered to be “personal data” within the definition of the law, the Police are under no obligation to destroy it, and may retain their ongoing record of all vehicle movements within the city for as long as they desire.
It is only too easy to see how the vast stores of data being built up under new data retention laws around the world might follow a similar trajectory: from being “purged” every few years, to made routinely accessible to the police — but only when national security was involved — and finally turning into data for routine investigations. The moral here is clear: to deal with the problem of surveillance function creep the only sure solution is not to allow the data to be stored in the first place.