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The guttural, we-must-do-something reaction of a government in the wake of a terrorist attack is almost always bad news for civil liberties. Policies like the PATRIOT Act in the United States have eroded privacy and due process rights under the pretense of security. Not to be outdone by its former colony, the British government has announced plans––following multiple terrorist attacks in recent months––to partner with businesses to come up with the best ways to implement surveillance and crowd-control techniques at heavily-populated venues.
Last week, the British Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA) held a competition of businesses, encouraging them to submit their best “proposals for technologies, systems and behavioural sciences,” to detect explosives and weapons in crowded spaces. The goal is to prevent future terrorist attacks at locations that typically draw large crowds, such as public transit stops, malls and sports stadiums.
The surveillance aspects of this competition are startling, but they’re nothing new. The British government already has the “most sweeping” surveillance powers in the western world, thanks to a bill passed last fall. The new focus of combining that massive surveillance apparatus with crowd-control techniques is what makes this new initiative so jarring.
DASA is offering up to £1 million of funding in the first round to companies that can come up with the best ways to improve current surveillance and use crowds as “sensors” to detect dangers through the use of behavioural sciences.
Behavioural science approaches would include “enabling” crowds to report threats. According to DASA’s website, the goal is to find a way to teach the public to be more vigilant and keep a distrustful eye on those around them. Those ideas seem similar to American initiatives such as the Department of Homeland Security’s “If You See Something, Say Something” program, which essentially incentivizes a sense of paranoia when riding the metro or attending an event where a large crowd is present.
These types of crowd control programs simply don’t work. According to a New York Times study conducted from 2006-07, “If You See Something, Say Something” did not yield a single terrorism-related arrest, despite 2,000 New Yorkers calling in a possible threat. Some subway officials even voiced concerns that dealing with continual bogus reports would take their time away from focusing on real dangers.
However creepy the focus on enabling crowds to report threats may seem, it’s one of the other steps the Brits are considering that’s most troubling.
DASA is looking for new ideas that allow it to “monitor and make sense of crowd behaviour that may indicate a threat is present.” There are the familiar examples, such as the assumption that any unattended bag is a bomb or that anyone acting vaguely suspicious poses a threat to safety, leading patrons to steer clear of both. But the government wants to get to the point where it can understand the less obvious, subconscious reactions people have when they feel endangered, and what types of cues lead them to feel this way. Simply put: you may not even know that you feel endangered, but the government will.
The guidelines for the crowd behaviour study are rather vague and leave plenty of options open for surveillance companies and the government. One can easily envision a British train station taking on a similar feel to an Israeli airport, where undercover officers patrol and surveille the exterior, vehicles are subject to undercarriage scans, and officers engage any suspicious looking-characters in conversation to determine if they are a threat.
According to the DASA initiative’s website, once the surveillance powers pick up on social cues that show a possible threat, officials would then notify the site owner or operator. This type of constant fear could easily lead to chaotic reactions from well-intended venue owners who just want to keep their patrons safe. In doing so, they could actually put their visitors in a more precarious situation by causing mass hysteria over a perceived danger. Even DASA acknowledges that this idea is flawed and would send off plenty of false flags, saying there is a “likelihood that we detect a threat, when none is present.”
Instead of going down a troubling road to a state of constant fear and misery, it’s time the Brits realize that handing over more power to the surveillance state is not going to make their nation any more secure. If such actions did make nations safer, Britain would already be the safest country on earth. Allowing the government and businesses to team up and monitor every move a human makes when they go to a public place sounds like some far-fetched conspiracy thrown around by those skeptical of the surveillance state. But it’s not.
Forcing people to live under a constant state of fear and surveillance does nothing to combat terrorism, but it does erode the key civil liberties we thought we could count on, while breeding a sense of distrust among neighbors.
Dan King is an advocate for Young Voices and a journalist residing in Arlington, Virginia. He writes about free speech, mass surveillance, civil liberties and LGBT issues. He can be found on Twitter @Kinger_Liberty.