Skip to main content
Amnesty International UK
Log in

Who will guard the guards?  

Privacy International listed the UK as the leading surveillance society in the EU in 2007 in its survey of 47 countries.


The UK is the only country within the EU to be classified as ‘an endemic surveillance society’.  It finds itself in company with Russia and China.  The report indicates that the UK achieves this worst ranking as it exhibits poor privacy performance and high levels of surveillance.


Amongst the key aspects for the UK, the report highlights hundreds of thousands of requests from government agencies to telecommunications providers for traffic data.  It also notes that the UK identity scheme is still planned to be the most invasive in the world, highly centralised and biometrics-driven and plans to issue all foreigners with cards in 2008 are continuing.


Globally, a key finding of the report is that:


“Concern over immigration and border control dominated the world agenda in 2007. Countries have moved swiftly to implement database, identity and fingerprinting systems, often without regard to the privacy implications for their own citizens.”


Once again, the British government seem to be following the lead of the USA, which also ranks here as ‘an endemic surveillance society’.  In America, the ACLU protests the government’s unchecked surveillance and challenges border control measures which allow for exclusion of foreign nationals on ideological grounds.  This form of ‘censorship at the border’ dangerously excludes beliefs and ideas by excluding people; a blow for free thinking, free speech and dissent from the views of those in power.  Clearly a human rights issue.


You can watch ACLU's film about prominent victims of 'ideological exclusion', amongst whom Nelson Mandela and Doris Lessing, here (it can be slow to load but it's worth the wait).


Here, the government has just published new ‘biometric registration’ regulations due to come into force this year.  The regulations set out in details the fingerprinting and photographing arrangements for ID cards for foreign nationals.  There are already anecdotal instances of those forced to flee damaging their fingerprints to avoid the implications of EURODAC – implications such as exclusion from a particular EU country and possible return to the country of origin.  The new regulations indicate that compliance with the statutory, ‘biometric registration’ procedures will be a necessity for leave to remain, leaving self-harm as the only way to dissent?  The government's website states that it expects the first ID cards to be issued to British citizens next year.


Following its previous detailed analysis of ‘travel surveillance’, such as the recent technological tracking of 50,000 passengers passing through Manchester airport, Privacy International is currently focusing on BAA’s new fingerprinting processes.  The airline operator plans to fingerprint domestic travellers at Heathrow, and it appears from this BBC coverage that the Border and Immigration Agency (BIA) may be behind BAA’s possibly unlawful actions:  the BIA advances here a bizarre defence of the measures as necessary to secure the UK border in the mixed space of domestic and international passengers. 


The stated motivation of fingerprinting to stop passengers from switching in the departure lounge is essentially the same as fingerprinting on entrance and exit from high security prisons to prevent a visitor switching with an inmate.  Who would be the prisoners in the context of the airport departure lounge – those inside ‘fortress Europe’ or those outside?  And who the prison guards?  And who will guard the guards?


The measures outlined above entrench a fearful view of human beings as fixed entities to be labelled, then accepted or rejected like objects, rather than as ever-changing subjects whose movements should not automatically raise cause for alarm.  Amnesty International has long been a powerful voice against censorship and attacks on the civil liberties of privacy rights.  Privacy International’s very worrying report is another indication of the UK government’s unfettered spying on people in Northern Ireland and Great Britain.   Anna Morvern          

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
View latest posts