The UK is quietly transforming into a dystopian surveillance state

Amidst the chaos of Brexit and President Trump, the UK has been quietly pushing through a bill to give it unprecedented surveillance powers. Now it's set to be law, and there's more to come. Welcome to the world's leading surveillance state

It’s safe to say that here in the UK things aren’t exactly rosy right now. Brexit is quickly turning into the biggest political shitshow in modern times, with no one, least of all the smarmy Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis, appearing to have any form of concrete plan for what happens next.

Information released today as part of the government’s Autumn Statement has added more bad news; by 2021 the UK looks set to have a national debt of £1.945 trillion, a horrifying contrast to the previous target of a budget surplus by 2020, and a pretty galling one for all the people who suffered at the hands of the country’s Draconian, unfairly handed out cuts over the past few years.

Add the excitement that surrounded the unexpected election of Donald Trump as US president, and it’s easy to see why the last few months might have been an excellent time for the UK government to rush through any bills it doesn’t want to much attention paid to.

“The most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy”

Which brings us onto the matter of the Investigatory Powers Bill. Dubbed Snooper’s Charter II, this bill jumped through the final hoop towards becoming law on the 16th November.

And despite being described by Edward Snowden as “the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy”, it did so with barely more than a whimper. The world, including the UK, was far more interested in the across-the-pond shenanigans, and so there was little to stop the government from steamrollering through a bill that will mean myself and every other person in Britain is almost continuously under surveillance.

If you want to get away from the watchful eye of the British Big Brother, you’ll have to either move to a very rural area and abandon technology altogether, or leave the country

As Snowden pointed out, the bill “goes farther than many autocracies”. It will compel internet service providers to store connection records of all UK internet users for 12 months, at the expense, I might add, of the UK taxpayer; increase the government’s ability to hack both individuals and groups of people; require tech companies to decrypt user data at the request of the government and continue the much-criticised practice of bulk data collection.

“The passage of the Snoopers’ Charter through Parliament is a sad day for British liberty,” summarised Bella Sankey, policy director for Liberty . ”Under the guise of counter-terrorism, the state has achieved totalitarian-style surveillance powers – the most intrusive system of any democracy in human history. It has the ability to indiscriminately hack, intercept, record, and monitor the communications and internet use of the entire population.”

Add the fact that the UK is already, in terms of CCTV, the most surveilled nation in the world, and the picture becomes extremely bleak. As of 2013 the UK had one surveillance camera for every 11 people in the country, meaning that if, like myself, you work in a city such as London, you’ll be on camera almost continuously from the moment you leave your house to the moment you get home.

Now you’ll be monitored at home too, meaning that if you want to get away from the watchful eye of the British Big Brother, you’ll have to either move to a very rural area and abandon technology altogether, or leave the country for an increasingly small list of surveillance-free alternatives.

The real reason for surveillance?

It’s worth taking a moment to remember that all of this is being done in the name of counterterrorism. It is also worth taking a moment to remember that in the last 20 years terrorism in the UK has claimed the lives of the total of 64 people, 56 of whom died in the 7/7 bombings. And that’s not just attacks by Islamic extremists, but also acts of terrorism committed by the Real IRA and, in the case of the murder of MP Jo Cox, a far right extremist.

Each one of those deaths was a horrendous tragedy, however the scale of response by the government is wildly disproportionate to the reality of the situation. Which begs the question: is there another reason for this unprecedented level of surveillance?

Back in 2015 Edward Snowden gave his own theory on the purpose of this type of surveillance, which feels horribly relevant today.

“When we look at the full-on mass surveillance watching everyone in the country in the United States, it doesn’t work,” he said.

“It didn’t stop the attacks in Boston, where we knew who these individuals were, it didn’t stop the underwear bomber, whose father had walked into an embassy and warned us about this individual before he walked onto an airplane, and it’s not going to stop the next attacks either because they’re not public safety programmes, they’re spying programmes.”

Ramping up censorship

Unfortunately the Investigatory Powers Bill isn’t the only law being quietly shoved through while the British public are freaking out about Marmite prices and the size of Toblerone.

While the IPB ramps up surveillance of the British public, the Digital Economy Bill 2016-17 will take care of censorship. Currently around halfway through the process of becoming law, the bill will require any and all pornography to be put behind extremely savage verification checks in a Helen Lovejoy-esque bid to think of the children.

Essentially when you visit the adult site of your choice you will be required to verify your age with one of a number of third-party organisations, such as banks, mobile phone networks or the National Health Service. This is being done to avoid the need for a creepy government-controlled central database, but given the powers offered in the IPB, there will be no need: the government will be collecting this information anyway. And this way you might even get the joy of having your data sold to a third party too.

The bill will require any and all pornography to be put behind extremely savage verification checks in a Helen Lovejoy-esque bid to think of the children

But that’s not all. Any site that doesn’t comply with this requirement will be blocked in the UK. And that’s not just websites dedicated to adult content, but those that happen to also have some, such as Reddit.

For many of these sites it will not be worth the expense of adding such a restrictive age gate the just UK users; in many cases the traffic and thus ad revenue they generate will be nowhere close to enough to justify the disruption, and so the UK will simply lose access to those parts of the internet.

And given that the types of sites we’re talking about here are likely to be forums, message boards and other sites where content is shared by different members of the community, that has pretty serious implications for free speech and freedom of information.

But that’s still not all. A minor clause in the bill will also force ISPs to block sites hosting any sexual acts that wouldn’t get certification by the British Board of Film Classification. These include any form of spanking or whipping that leaves marks, sex involving urination, female ejaculation or menstruation and sex in public.

These are not exactly super niche fetishes, and are found on many, many porn sites, and well as many non-porn sites that contain some adult content. All of which will be banned in the UK if this bill passes.

And while easy to say that its only porn, it’s quite likely many sites with plenty of non-pornographic content will be blocked thanks to a small amount of offending material on their servers. And given there will likely be little in the way of transparency over each site’s blocking, that is a truly worrying situation to be in.

May’s control

At the heart of these Draconian policies is of course the UK’s unelected Prime Minister, Theresa May. Both bills are continuations of policies she was attempting to get passed in her former role as British Home Secretary and demonstrate weird obsession with state control for someone who identifies as Conservative.

Theresa May, UK Prime Minister. Image courtesy of Frederic Legrand - COMEO / Shutterstock.com

Theresa May, UK Prime Minister. Image courtesy of Frederic Legrand – COMEO / Shutterstock.com

Which is worrying, because before becoming Prime Minister May also expressed an interest in withdrawing from the European Convention of human rights, pushed through an outright ban on all psychoactive substances in the UK despite government advisers saying the approach was unworkable and, in a concerning attack on free speech, banned two divisive US bloggers from entering the country based only on their opinions.

It doesn’t paint a positive view of what’s to come for Britain. But perhaps more concerningly, the madness and confusion of Brexit will likely continue throughout May’s time as Prime Minister, making it unlikely that many of her policies will face adequate scrutiny.

The UK is already the most surveilled nation in the world, but now it’s starting to become a full-blown dystopian surveillance state. And the sad thing is, we’re probably not even going to notice when it does.

Former US presidential candidate Ralph Nader warns against over-hyping driverless cars

Former presidential candidate Ralph Nader has said that unsubstantiated claims from driverless car enthusiasts are distracting authorities from improving transport links and improving road and rail infrastructure.

In a blog post, Nader argues that the while the many advantages of a possible driverless future have been reported by the media, they have not been properly scrutinised, and the technology is draining much-needed funds that should be made available to mass transit services and the industry’s own vehicle safety upgrades.

“The mass media took the bait and over-reported each company’s sensationalised press releases, announcing breakthroughs without disclosing the underlying data,” said Nader.

“The arrogance of the algorithms, among many other variables, bypassed simple daily realties such as bustling traffic in cities like New York.”

Image courtesy of Don LaVange

Nader makes the claim that the predicted decline in car sales has led car companies to promote their high-ticket, driverless cars, which as Nader points out are already being marketed as “computers on wheels”.

However, Nader argues no explanation has been given for how autonomous vehicles would be implanted into normal people’s daily lives, and the problems of cars being hacked or requiring humans to take over haven’t been resolved.

“The industry, from Silicon Valley to Detroit, argues safety. Robotic systems do not get drunk, fall asleep at the wheel or develop poor driving skills. But computers fail often; they are often susceptible to hacking, whether by the manufacturers, dealers or deadly actors,” said Nader.

“Already, Level Three—an autonomous vehicle needing emergency replacement by the surrogate human driver—is being viewed as unworkable by specialists at MIT and elsewhere. The human driver, lulled and preoccupied, can’t take back control in time.”

Nader also makes the point in his blog post that driverless cars are diverting funding away from making cars we already have safer, more efficient and less polluting.

It is Nader’s opinion that we shouldn’t wait for what he terms a “technological will-o’-the-wisp”, and we should instead make changes to the cars we already have, as well as improving public transportation and infrastructure.

“The driverless car is bursting forth without a legal, ethical and priorities framework. Already asking for public subsidies, companies can drain much-needed funds for available mass transit services and the industry’s own vehicle safety upgrades,” said Nader.

“Why won’t we concentrate on what can be improved and expanded to get safer, efficient, less polluting mobility?”

Self-driving shopping: Autonomous grocery delivery trialled in London

The first trials of a self-driving grocery delivery service have started in Greenwich, London, as part of a wider project looking into the use of autonomous vehicles for ‘last mile’ deliveries.

An initiative between UK government and industry funded smart mobility lab the GATEway project and Ocado Technology, a part of the world’s largest online-online supermarket, the trail uses a cargo-carrying self-driving vehicle known as CargoPod. Developed by Oxbotica, the vehicle can carry 128kg of groceries at a time, as is designed to drive in areas populated by pedestrians thanks to its software system Selenium.

“Last mile delivery is a growing challenge as our cities become denser and more congested,” said Graeme Smith, CEO of Oxbotica. “In this new project we are working closely with Ocado Technology to deploy our Selenium autonomy system into a novel last-mile delivery application in Greenwich as a part of the GATEway project.”

Running over ten days, the trail will see groceries delivered to over 100 residents across the Royal Riverside Arsenal development in the borough of Greenwich. The project is the latest in a series of trials of self-driving vehicles in the borough, which have been primarily focused on their operation in areas also used by pedestrians.

“The Royal Borough of Greenwich is one of the UK’s leaders in smart city innovation and we are proud to be working alongside our partners to be at the forefront in this new age of driverless technology,” Councillor Sizwe James, cabinet member for transport, economy and smart cities at the Royal Borough of Greenwich.

“With Digital Greenwich spearheading this work forwards, we are gaining new insights into how connected and autonomous vehicles, including automated light delivery vehicles, will impact on the city and what cities need to do to capture the opportunities they can bring.”

Images courtesy of the GATEway project

The eventual goal of the project is to bring self-driving vehicles into general use in the UK.

“The GATEway project takes us another step closer to seeing self-driving vehicles on UK roads, and has the potential to reduce congestion in urban areas while reducing emissions,” said UK Business Minister Claire Perry. “Backed by government, this project firmly establishes the UK as a global centre for developing self-driving innovation.”

As part of this, there has been a strong focus on the commercial opportunities of self-driving vehicles, as evidenced by the involvement of Ocado.

“Ocado Technology is delighted to have worked in partnership with the GATEway Project to a complete a very successful grocery delivery trial using driverless vehicles. We are always looking to come up with unique, innovative solutions to the real-world challenge of delivering groceries in densely-populated urban environments,” said David Sharp, Head of 10x Technology at Ocado.

“This project is part of the on-going journey to be at the edge of what is practical and offer our Ocado Smart Platform customers new and exciting solutions for last mile deliveries.”