Page last updated at 11:37 GMT, Monday, 4 May 2009 12:37 UK

Surveillance fears for the UK

By Chris Vallance
BBC Radio 4 iPM programme

Phil Zimmermann says surveillance in the UK has gone too far

Computer security veteran Phil Zimmermann warns about the seductive nature of technology.

The UK is risking sliding unwittingly into a police state because of the growing use of surveillance technology, says security guru Phil Zimmermann.

"When you live in that society and it changes incrementally over time you are less likely to notice the changes," he told the BBC. "But if you come from outside the picture as it stands is more abruptly visible as something wrong."

Mr Zimmermann has spent his career in technology wrestling with privacy and security issues. He created PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) which encrypted e-mail to protect it from prying eyes.

Friction free

For him, the wholesale use of surveillance systems has gone too far in the UK.

The coupling of CCTV cameras with face-recognition algorithms that can track people through crowds, read registration plates and fuse all the sources of data was, dangerous, said Mr Zimmermann.

"It adds up to something that I think is able to undermine democratic institutions," he said.

For Mr Zimmermann what is creating the problem is the "seductiveness" of modern computer technology.

CCTV sign, BBC
CCTV systems work with face recognition systems to track individuals

"As the years have gone by governments have sort of indulged themselves in the seductions of surveillance technology," he said. "Advances in surveillance technology made it possible to collect vast amounts of data, to reduce the data by computer analysis and become more aware of everything."

Advances have removed the "friction" that, in the real world act as a balance to excess, said Mr Zimmermann.

For instance, he said, the reason that the postal system is not swamped with junk mail like e-mail systems is because sending direct mail costs money.

"In e-mail it costs nothing and so that makes the friction disappear and because of that we get thousands of junk e-mails a day," he said.

"By analogy, if it takes some work, some elbow grease, to investigate people then I think you get a reasonable balance of civil liberties," he said.

The danger, he said, came when technology removed that friction and made it possible to get at huge amounts of data about people and analyse it to get a picture of what everyone is doing.

"It becomes possible to know everything about everyone all the time," he said. "It becomes possible to become omniscient."

Police power

It was "absurd" to suggest, said Mr Zimmermann, that only criminals or people who had something to hide would be threatened by such a state of affairs.

"Everyone has something to hide," he said. "We have our medical records, our private lives, our intimate selves, our financial lives. Things about our lives we do not want others to know. And this can be abused."

He added: "The power of the incumbency becomes amplified when it has access to enormous surveillance resources."

Spam in e-mail inbox, BBC
Spam is rampant because it is "friction free" said Mr Zimmerman

While technology could help people defend themselves against some intrusions into privacy, such as using encryption to scramble the content of e-mail messages, it could not defend against the wholesale use of surveillance systems in public.

"I can't encrypt your face," he said. "We live our physical lives in the physical world and that's not really subject to encryption."

Mr Zimmermann did not deplore all use of surveillance systems by government and police. In some cases, he said, this was appropriate given that many criminals were using technology too.

But, he warned, that did not excuse the extent to which it was starting to be used.

"These technologies tend to over-amplify the capabilities so that you can become extremely efficient in knowing everything," he said. "You can overshoot the mark as you attempt to catch up with the criminals and become aware of what everyone is doing all the time.

"I think that is harmful to society," he said.

"If you create a system where the police have too easy a job there's a threshold where if it becomes too easy it can slide into a police state," warned Mr Zimmermann.

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