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The danger of casual CCTV surveillance

Posted by on January 6, 2015.

A couple of weeks ago I asked if Sainsbury is — or at least was at the time — in breach of the Data Protection Act. I have no doubt that it was.

The issue was Sainsbury’s practice of using ANPR cameras on every vehicle entering its car park at the Torquay Willows store. I have to say that the last time I checked the cameras had been turned off (or at least they were no longer displaying visitors’ number plates).

This practice most definitely breached the law because the company nowhere indicated who was in charge of the surveillance; and it was almost certainly in breach because it is disproportionate to the purpose subsequently explained to me (see Is Sainsbury in breach of the Data Protection Act? )

This makes the response to my enquiries to both the ICO and Sainsbury itself (who still hasn’t responded, by the way) less than satisfactory. Now you might ask, what’s so important about Sainsbury taking a note of your number plate in their car park; after all it’s no different to someone walking round and writing them down?

But it is different, and it is very important. This and all the other apparently insignificant cases of casual disconnected electronic surveillance are breeding a nation that is comfortable with total surveillance of everything we do and everywhere we go. And there are huge dangers in this because all of the different surveillance schemes are interconnected. I have not the slightest doubt that one of the reasons Sainsbury has not replied to, and why the ICO ignored, my query about the police, is that the Sainsbury ANPR data is simply made available to the police; nor do I doubt that within a strict interpretation of the law, that handover is perfectly legal. That doesn’t make it right.

We know from Snowden that the modern intelligence agency mantra is ‘collect it all’. We know that, one way or another, they monitor everything they can. We know that the Five Eyes (US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada) share data between each other so that none have to break their own national laws (too much), yet still know everything about their own citizens..

It is not reasonable to believe that police forces do not share their own data with the intelligence agencies. That data increasingly includes national ANPR databases. London’s congestion charge cameras are controlled by the police. Do you think that London data is kept separate from the police motorway ANPR cameras? Or that the Sainsbury data is not gathered into the police national ANPR database? And do you think the intelligence agencies would allow such information to exist without having access to it?

Just in case you are forgetting the enormity of what Snowden has told us, have a look at the video below. It’s a year old, but you probably haven’t seen it before.

(Incidentally, if it’s not visible then I have had a takedown demand. You should then still be able to see it at

It is worth asking why you haven’t seen it before. One reason is that it doesn’t stick on YouTube:


Why would a German company go to the trouble of producing an interview in English, and then not allow it to be seen in England? It’s called ‘censorship by omission’ (see Britain: a land of censorship by omission  & then Censorship is alive and well in Britain today) and it’s the way that the Five Eyes nations keep their people in the dark. A quiet word, a nudge, a threat and a promise and the people don’t even know what it is they aren’t allowed to know.

But back to the point. The point is that all surveillance data is aggregated and includes everything that moves along wires or through the air. It is Big Data writ very big indeed. And it is mined by the authorities for their own purposes just as — but more efficiently than — commercial companies are beginning to mine their own relatively small and largely willingly granted big data on us.

The following comes from an article by James Bridle published by Matter just before Christmas:

JOHN AND LINDA CATT were driving into central London early one Sunday morning when they were stopped and searched by police officers. At the time of the stop, in July 2005, Linda was 45, and John, her father, was an 80-year-old with a shock of white hair. Officers told them they were being searched under the Terrorism Act. The Catts, who had no criminal convictions, were threatened with arrest if they refused to answer police questions.

Although they didn’t know it at the time, minutes before they were stopped their van had been captured by the ANPR network, which had triggered an alert: “Of interest to Public Order Unit, Sussex police.”

…Police had spotted their vehicle at protests and decided that it should be tracked, tagging them as “domestic extremists”.
How Britain Exported Next-Generation Surveillance

Oh shit! The fucking buggery bastards are crapping on my right to free expression

Oh shit! The fucking buggery bastards are crapping on my right to free expression

This is the real danger from government surveillance and government Big Data. Forget about false positives and false negatives — improving technology will minimize those in the future. Remember instead the primary purpose of the American constitution: it was designed to protect the people from authoritarian and corrupt government. Since then governments have become more authoritarian and more corrupt. The purpose of surveillance and data gathering today has nothing to do with anti-terrorism (if the UK and the USA were businesses, then the total lack of anti-terrorist ROI from the surveillance infrastructure would have had the Board sacked years ago); the purpose of CCTV surveillance is to recognize and stifle legal domestic dissent.

And that is why the cameras in the Sainsbury car park matter.

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Submitted in: Expert Views, Kevin Townsend's opinions, News, News_surveillance | Tags: , ,