UK watchdog: Public should wise up about surveillance cameras

The U.K.’s surveillance camera commissioner has warned that British citizens don’t seem to be aware of the implications of being constantly monitored in public places.

Although the crime-fighting efficacy of closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras is debatable, they are everywhere in the U.K. (My favorite “These premises are under 24-hour CCTV surveillance” sign was in the now-closed Orwell pub — named after George — in Islington, London.) The job of the commissioner, Tony Porter, is to ensure that surveillance cameras in public places are used to “protect the public rather than spy on them,” though he doesn’t have any enforcement powers.

In an interview with the Guardian, Porter said he was troubled by “the lack of public awareness about the nature of surveillance”:

When people say ‘the public love CCTV’, do they really know what it does and its capability? Do they know with advancing technology, and algorithms, it starts to predict behavior?

The commissioner said he was worried about the rise of body-worn videos (BWVs), which are increasingly being sported by police, local council officers and even security staff in universities and supermarkets. He said he thought police BWVs – a hot topic in the U.S. recently — could dissuade the public from talking to them, and argued that on-campus BWVs raised questions about personal freedom and transparency. He also called on people who got drones for Christmas to have some sensitivity about their neighbors’ privacy.

Porter also urged more transparency in the police’s automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) systems, saying: “It is wrong not to be transparent because it impacts not just on the motorists, but on the whole psyche of the community. It is very dangerous to walk into a datafied society, where everybody is a number and everybody can be linked via ANPR to facial recognition, to another thing.”

I’m not sure what to add to that — Porter, a former counter-terrorism coordinator, knows what he’s talking about and he states his warnings well. It’s a pity that he doesn’t have enforcement powers, but hopefully those who do wield power will take what he says to heart, as surveillance regulation develops. Given the way the U.K. is going with online surveillance, though, I’m not feeling too hopeful about that.

UK wants hot tech grads to do spy work before building startups

The British government is considering a program that would see the most promising tech graduates spend some time working for the GCHQ signals intelligence agency, the U.K.’s equivalent to the NSA, before they move into the private sector.

As per a Thursday article in The Independent, confirmed to me by the Cabinet Office on Friday, the scheme would give the U.K. a rough equivalent to the system in Israel, where many tech entrepreneurs have come out of Unit 8200 of the Israel Defence Force. Unit 8200 is also a signals intelligence operation, and the cybersecurity firm Palo Alto Networks is a notable spinout.

According to the Cabinet Office sources quoted in the Independent piece, the idea would be to “capitalize on the expertise in GCHQ in terms of IT commercialization” by creating “a secure space where business can work with GCHQ and build an eco-system between the two.” (Side note: For more security-related U.K. civil-service-speak, check out the brilliant Sir Bonar Neville-Kingdom spoof account on Twitter.)

In short, part of the attraction lies in the idea of making money out of GCHQ’s in-house spy tech. In Israel, some Unit 8200 technologies have ended up being commercialized through startups created by former members. The Cabinet Office reckons the same could be done in the U.K., particularly around cybersecurity technologies — Cabinet Office boss Francis Maude visited Israel in November and, I am told, came away with lots of ideas around “digital and cyber”.

No doubt GCHQ would also benefit from the fresh ideas bubbling away in the brains of U.K. tech’s future stars, not to mention the potential for continued links in the future.

Of course, all Israelis have to go through the army anyway, so funnelling bright young tech minds through the local spook house is a relatively easy task there. GCHQ and the Cabinet Office may have a harder time of convincing promising British techies to spend time hanging around spooks, particularly with GCHQ’s mass surveillance programs – illegal under international law — having been exposed by the leaks of NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

While GCHQ has remained tight-lipped about its specific activities, since the Snowden leaks it has made a couple attempts at publicity. In November its new chief, Robert Hannigan, attacked U.S. tech firms for “benefiting” terrorists by extending encryption across their products and networks, and in December it released a tablet app for kids to, er, teach them the basics of encryption.

Wikileaks founder Assange says he will leave Ecuadorian embassy “soon”

Julian Assange will “soon” leave the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he has been taking refuge since breaking bail terms two years ago, the Wikileaks founder said Monday in a press conference. He provided no further details. Reports earlier on Monday suggested he is suffering from health issues. Assange has been hiding in the embassy since 2012, after being accused of rape and sexual coercion in Sweden a couple of years previously. The Australian fears being extradited to the U.S. over the leaking of classified military documents, via Wikileaks, by soldier Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning. Last year Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison over the leaks.