Mass Surveillance & the Dark Web of Pick’n’Mix Law

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Image by By Mariordo (Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz) (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

[ The International Working Group on Video Surveillance (IWGVS) published an open letter to the Mayor of London Sadiq Kahn on 27th January 2017 [0], asking him to reverse a decision of his predecessor Boris Johnson. This article lays out the back story to that letter. ]


On 27th January 2015, then Mayor of London Boris Johnson signed an order increasing the data collection capability of the Metropolitan Police Service’s (MPS) number plate camera network by 300%. He achieved this without adding any cameras.

The story of how Johnson was able to sign away the liberties of millions of drivers in London illustrates the rise of a new administrative despotism, and a contempt for individual freedoms and values once cherished.

For the beginnings of this current wave of administrative despotism please bear with me for a few short paragraphs as we travel back to the latter part of the nineteenth century. It was then that government began to increase its areas of concern, shifting from a non-interventionist attitude regarding many domestic affairs to the current position where there are few areas of public and even personal life in which they have no concern at all [1].

Whilst enjoying the increased reach of government, those in power still felt hampered by the normal legislative process and so looked for sneaky ways to circumvent it. In 1896, John Theodore Dodd, a councillor and Poor Law guardian, wrote about the “almost insuperable” task of obtaining an Act of Parliament for the Poor Law reforms he wanted. He saw that reform by administrative processes was much swifter and was protected from the views of those who didn’t agree, whom he dubbed “the obstructive minority” [2].

Administrative Lawlessness

In 1929, further to inspiring a parliamentary committee to investigate Ministers’ Powers, then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Hewart coined the phrase “Administrative Lawlessness” to describe a worrying trend in English politics – the exercise of arbitrary power, where decisions are made in the shadows, not based on evidence and without proper scrutiny. Hewart wrote [3]:

“Arbitrary power is certain in the long run to become despotism, and there is danger, if the so-called method of administrative “law”, which is essentially lawlessness, is greatly extended, of the loss of those hardly won liberties which it has taken centuries to establish.”

In 2017 Hewart’s language may seem antiquated but in our not so distant past words like “liberty”, “constitution” and “freedoms” were in common usage. Liberty was at the heart of the constitution, that is to say that the importance of liberty to the way of life in England went before the laws and the laws were built upon that foundation.

Now the constitution is considered merely a dry academic topic and the spirit of liberty is all but forgotten. Amidst this historic amnesia the surveillance state is able to flourish and a renewed assault on administrative processes is going unnoticed.

Johnson’s part-work manifesto

Back to the Mayor’s story. In 2012, Johnson published a multi-volume part-work manifesto. Issued over several weeks this collection contained gripping editions such as ‘Investing in Transport’, ‘Value from the Olympics’ and many more. Hidden deep within the one on crime [4], Johnson stated he would ensure that Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras would be used across London to “help identify and track down the vehicles of criminals”. This, he said, he would do by getting the police and Transport for London (TfL) to share their high tech tracking toys, seeing as TfL already had a load of congestion charge and low-emission zone cameras which were practically standing idle whilst criminals drove around the capital with impunity – or words to that effect.

The problem with part-works, as we all know, is that after the first edition with the free gift on the front it’s difficult to keep up the enthusiasm and in the case of Johnson’s manifesto there wasn’t even a free gift. So alas not much attention was paid to the prose style of the ANPR section on page 14 of the crime edition, nor for that matter what it actually meant for the freedoms of the people of London.

When Johnson was re-elected in May 2012 he did get a free gift, the job of Police and Crime Commissioner for London which now comes as an added extra to the mayoral job. Johnson palmed the job off immediately (via delegation of powers) to his deputy, Stephen Greenhalgh.

In the months after Johnson’s re-election it seemed that the TfL/MPS camera sharing idea had been forgotten. But deep within London’s back offices administrators, police and transporty people were punching keys on their keyboards, sending emails, having meetings in rooms and generally getting things done, in private, away from the harsh glare of the public eye.

In August 2013, Greenhalgh signed an order [5] requesting a quarter of a million pounds to conduct a “consultation” exercise (and to asses the signage required to facilitate ANPR camera sharing between TfL and MPS – not to pre-empt the consultation’s outcome or anything).

Charles Farrier
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Charles Farrier

The UK is the most spied upon nation in the world - why doesn't it have the lowest crime rate?
Charles Farrier
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