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Samizdata quote of the day

Profiling whole populations instead of monitoring individual suspects is a sinister step in any society. It’s dangerous enough at national level, but on a Europe-wide scale the idea becomes positively chilling.

Shami Chakrabarti

24 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • Tedd

    The article reminded me of one of my favourite quotes:

    “Any coward can tolerate tyranny. It takes a brave man to live in a free society.”
    –Bill Hagness, Deputy Chief, Wisconsin Capitol Police

    He meant woman, too, I assume.

    Surely, we can tolerate the odd shoving incident in a mall in exchange for liberty and privacy.

    I think, though, that the word Chakrabarti should have used was “surveilling,” not “profiling.” There doesn’t seem to be any suggestion of profiling in the article.

  • RAB

    I clicked on that after having read something else in the Telegraph today, then noticed that it was three years old.

    What have the bastards been up to in the meantime I wonder?

  • Rich Rostrom

    Get over it. The proposed program would not intrude on anyone’s privacy; it is automation and expansion of monitoring public activity.

    Is it OK for a police officer walking a beat to notice that members of two hostile groups are accumulating in a particular location, and that verbal and other exchanges between them are escalating toward a full-out brawl or gunfight?

    Is it OK for a police officer on patrol to notice that a group of young men with the dress and grooming of yobs are following a young woman toward a secluded area?

    Is it OK for a police officer to notice a man carrying something heavy concealed in his jacket, studying the front doors of closed shops?

    Each of these cases is police observation of “abnormal behavior” in public that is predictive of imminent crime.

    The difference between these cases and the program Chakrabarti is so alarmed by is that the latter is comprehensive. All the elements of it are reasonable; it is only the aggregation of them which is attacked.

    And the only reason such aggregation wasn’t done before was practical difficulty, now obviated by technology.

    Treating such difficulties as real bulwarks of liberty is the classic fallacy of “security through obscurity”. Technology smashes such barriers, whether anyone likes it or not.

  • It is entirely about profiling. They seek to detect “abnormal behaviour”. It is far more than mere data collection, it is about generating ‘actionable’ targets.

  • Lee Moore

    I know it’s a failing in me, but I have never managed to summon up the requisite outrage and horror about all this government profiling and surveillance and ID cardery, that I probably ought to. I understand of course that all this information could be misused by the evil forces of the state bureaucracy, and we could all find ourselves in a 1984 type state. But are they actually misusing it yet – I mean deliberately and evilly, rather than just cocking things up in the usual fashion ?

    The problem I have is that keeping an eye out for people liable to set off bombs, and catching bank robbers and computer fraudsters is a legitimate and valuable activity of government, and a certain amount of surveillance and so on is, perhaps regrettably, necessary to this sort of thing effectively. Meanwhile surveillance per se doesn’t, or needn’t, actually trample on anyone’s liberties. If I walk down a public street, I have no right not to have my comings and goings noted down by a nosy neighbour. If someone chooses to keep tabs on what I say in the pub, my freedom of speech is not infringed.

    Meanwhile there is a mountain of actual prohibition and regulation about how I go about my life which does, directly, infringe my liberty. I really am not allowed to agree with my employer that I shall work 60 hours next week and get paid accordingly. I find it much easier to get upset about that sort of thing. And, although it doesn’t affect me personally, the sort of horror stories told by the likes of Booker about the social services child kidnap industry.

    Some people might say that the child kidnap industry is allowed to flourish because of the surveillance state. But I don’t think it really is. Children get kidnapped by the state authorities because someone says something at school, or a teacher or doctor notices a bruise and some wacky theory is concocted. It really has nothing to do with cameras and monitoring emails.

    So, lest I be misunderstood, I’m against the state’s manic over surveillance and tab keeping, because it probably will be misused, and it could be misused very badly.

    But in terms of order of priority, if I had a magic repeal wand, which I could use to repeal laws that infringe liberty seriously, repealing laws which permit government snooping would come in at about number 453 on my list.

  • Tedd


    To me, profiling in this context means developing a demographic profile of a typical suspect and using that as a filter for further investigation. To those to whom it’s objectionable, that’s objectionable because it discriminates on demographic, rather than behavioral distinctions. That is, it treats the individual as merely a member of a group, rather than as an individual.

    What’s being proposed in the article is based on behavioral distinctions, which are more legitimate kinds of distinctions for law enforcement. What’s objectionable about it is mainly the universal surveillance, not the behavioral profiles. I suppose you could call it a kind of profiling, it’s just not how the term is normally used.

  • Alisa

    Lee, do you agree that information is power?

  • Lee Moore

    Hmm, that sounds sort of like a slogan that could be interpreted in lots of different ways. Information is information. If I have some (correct) information, that enables me to achieve my aims more effectively than if I have no (or incorrect) information. I suppose you could call that power. Just as if I have a hammer I have more power to do things that require a hammer than if I didn’t have the hammer. But whether my having a hammer threatens your liberty of property depends on how I plan to use it, not on whether I have it.

    In the context of the government having information about me, then sure it could be said to give them power. If I was about to set light to a railway station, then if they knew that, they would have an increased chance of stopping me doing it. Ditto if I was about to make a speech poking fun at government policy. If the government exercised its extra power in the first case that would be a good thing. In the second case it would be a bad thing.

  • Lee Moore

    “But whether my having a hammer threatens your liberty of property depends on how I plan to use it, not on whether I have it.”

    I suppose I should have said that any threat to your liberty or property from my hammer depends on me both having a hammer and having the requisite intention to use it against you. Thus if I have bad intentions, but no hammer, then my bad intentions cannot be carried into execution – at least not with a hammer.

    In this sense, I agree, any asset, facility or resource available to the government increases its power to do bad things. But since I am not an anarchist, that does not of itself determine that the government should therefore have no assets, facilities or resources.

  • Alisa

    Sure, most here are not anarchists, but what could be described as carious degrees of minarchists – with ‘min-‘ implying the minimization of the power of government to a, well, some kind of minimum. It sounds like your minimum is different, that’s all.

  • bloke in spain

    I suppose the objection is that the state had such a bloody awful track record when it comes to the use of these sort of abilities.
    One incident springs to mind. Back when I lived in London, the local council installed CCTV in the shopping center on the basis of the security it would provide the public. Then along came exactly the sort of occurrence, would have benefited from CCTV surveillance. Smash & grab raid in one of the shops. Member of staff injured. Passing member of the public, who tried to intervene, injured. So all of this was captured on CCTV? Was it f**k. Cameras were orientated to capture the registration plates of vehicles parking.
    So you have to ask what sort of profiles profiling might throw up. The State’s interested in those things are a threat to the State. That’s not the same as those things that are a threat to the public. The 7/7 bombers weren’t a threat to the State. On the contrary, they were quite State-friendly. Gave infinite excuse for State snooping & extension of powers. People posting on sites like this, however, might be seen as a threat to the State because they oppose its increasing its powers.

  • Alisa

    There is still a point missing here: the state (which is to say: at least some individuals within it) will always abuse any power given to it – the only questions are ‘when’ and ‘to what degree’, not ‘if’. In that regard, information is not different from any other power. It is very different though in that lack of information automatically renders any other power totally meaningless. If they don’t know where you live, what is your name, if your vehicle (or gun) is not registered, how much you earn…You get the idea.

  • Lee Moore

    I do get the idea. With no information about me, they will struggle to track me down and do bad things to me. But equally with no information about anybody, they will struggle to track burglars and suchlike down. Of course I’d like to structure the state so they have the power to track down burglars, but don’t have the power to track down law abiding folk and do them harm. But the details of how to achieve this discrimination are quite difficult. I don’t think one can quite get there with “information = power, power = power to do me wrong; therefore the government should have no information.”

    There’s something about babies and bathwater here.

  • Alisa

    I am not saying that government should have no information or no power. Point is, the government already has lots and lots of information (and power). I do understand that many people feel that it still doesn’t have quite enough of either – I just happen to disagree.

  • Lee Moore

    Then we’re probably in reasonable agreement. It seems unlikely that the government is going to make much good use of any further information, over and above what they currently have. Particularly as bloke in spain points out, they tend to use what they have for purposes that suit them rather than me. Let them learn how to use what they have more sensibly. (Ha ha.)

    But technology marches on, and precisely what information they should have and how they should get it will depend on practical rather than theological considerations. Nor do I regard the march of technology as all bad. If the government is going to gather all sorts of information about me, then I prefer them to do it by videoing me as I walk about shopping centres, or by monitoring my blog posts; rather than requiring me to attend in person at my place of birth, to register for taxation, complete with donkey and pregnant wife, pursuant to the command of Caesar Augustus. Internet snooping and video cameras are just a lot less effort as far as I’m concerned.

  • Alisa

    Well Lee, yes – but: personally, I am not quite happy with the level of information and power they as it is. It is far above the minimum I would be comfortable with.

    As to government snooping in public domain: they can’t really do much of it without intrusion into and coercion of private individuals and businesses. So while the distinction you are making may be real, it is merely technical. Which may have been the very point you were making?:-)

  • Alisa

    ‘level of information and power they *have* as it is’

  • Lee Moore:

    I know it’s a failing in me

    It truly, truly is. Every expansion of the state needs to be opposed.

    Rich Rostrom:

    Get over it. The proposed program would not intrude on anyone’s privacy; it is automation and expansion of monitoring public activity.

    Then you completely miss what the risk is. This can and will be used for revenue gathering (who is talking about “taxation is theft”) and political control, not just catching terrorists or the state’s private sector Mafia rivals. So no, I will not get over it.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    I’ve had some disputes here with folk over the appropriate initiation of force. I took issue with the idea of initiating force against Iran because they might be planning on attacking someone. However in this case I can see the point that you might want to deal with the threat before it becomes unmanageable.

    I don’t think the argument scales down so well though. Aggressive surveillance (of that kind that demands “come here and explain yourself”) is a form of aggression. And when it is used against against whole populations, all you’ve got is wholesale state aggression, and everyone’s life is worse as a result.

    As an aside, I’m not too impressed with Ms. Chakrabarti. She talks about liberty but she seems rather more concerned with “equality” which is in fact a contradiction. She gets really wound up about the state doing “x” to Muslims, and doesn’t let slip a peep when it is crushing B&B owners for not wanting Homosexuals sharing beds.

    She strikes me as a hypocrite.

  • As an aside, I’m not too impressed with Ms. Chakrabarti

    Nor am I. Indeed for the most part ‘Liberty’ are in fact boosters for all manner of liberty-infringing state policies and I have very little time for them.

  • RAB

    I think some folk are missing the point here. This isn’t just our local paranoid prod nosed nazis using CCTV and Internet snooping here, it’s the EU.

    An “Organisation” that has accrued to itself, a Flag, and Anthem, and unelected President, a Foreign Diplomatic service and now wishes to found it’s own Secret Police, using whatever tools it thinks fit for its own protection.

    Given that the EU views anyone who believes and openly states that they are an unelected unrepresentative Criminal Kleptocracy, as being guilty of “Abnormal behaviour” per se, then look forward to everyone commenting here being put on file somewhere via Internet monitoring.

    Then they will wait till we commit some transgression however small or large, and the full weight of their might will fall upon us, one by one.

    We will be had up for parking transgressions, speeding transgressions, littering transgressions, Thought and Speech crime transgressions in fact any footling trangressions they can manufacture and monitor, or even Photoshop into credible evidence. It will not matter if we are guilty or totally innocent, that is not the point, the point is to shut us up and neuter us.

    The Process is the Punishment. They will fuck with our lives by dragging us into court in our country or another EU one, via the EU Arrest Warrant. We will lose our money in fees defending ourselves, time lost in taking time off work to do the same, maybe even the job itself.

    And if all the protracted time this takes ends in us being not guilty, well the powers that be will not care a jot.

    “Want to go through all this again Punk? Well we’re ready to fuck you around a hundred times more. So best you shut the fuck up and get back in your box. You know it makes sense”.

  • Clovis Sangrail

    What RAB said.

    Also it cannot be said often enough that acquiescing in the current shambling grab-bag of doltocrats, poltroons, cads and jobsworths accruing a little more power paves the way for more sinister and competent successors to nail you to the wall much more quickly, effectively and quasi-legally.