A recent survey from internet security consultancy, Cryptohippie, suggests that the UK is setting the pace in at least one area - though being classified as the West’s most repressive regime when it comes to electronic surveillance might not be a title that this government is entirely happy to wear.
This result emerges from Cryptohippie’s recently published Electronic Police State 2008 (pdf). This is the first in what are intended to be a series of annual reports that will audit the "State use of electronic technologies to record, organize, search and distribute forensic evidence against its citizens".
The audit focusses on 17 factors, ranging from requirement to produce documents on demand, through to the extent to which states force ISP’s and phone companies to retain data, the blurring of boundaries between police and intelligence work and ultimately the breakdown of the principles of habeas corpus.
A simple five-point scoring system is used for each factor, with results totalled to produce an overall score. Some 52 major states are looked at, with final ranking apparently influenced by two quite different factors. On the one hand, states that are simply repressive are likely to score highly – and they do. The top four places in the survey are occupied by China, North Korea, Belarus and Russia.
However, electronic policing also requires some degree of technological sophistication – so it is not surprising to find the UK dropping in at no. 5 and the US at no. 6. France and Germany arrive a few places below that.
This result echoes warnings issued repeatedly by Lords and the Information Commissioner – most recently in an official report last month – that Britain is slowly sleepwalking toward becoming a surveillance society. Equally predictable was the government response that it takes all such criticisms seriously and needs to strike a balance.
However, as both Cryptohippie and other government critics have argued, the government response is disingenuous, relying on a rejection of straw men, rather than engaging with genuine fears.
The report expands on its subject thus: "The usual image of a "police state" includes secret police dragging people out of their homes at night, with scenes out of Nazi Germany or Stalin’s USSR. The problem with these images is that they are horribly outdated. That’s how things worked during your grandfather’s war – that is not how things work now.
"An electronic police state is quiet, even unseen. All of its legal actions are supported by abundant evidence. It looks pristine." ®