Internet cafe surveillance ‘security theatre’

For the London Free Press - Mar 3, 2010 Read this on Canoe

General public, especially Muslims, likely unintended target of move by U.K. police to monitor customers’ web travels

Internet cafes in the United Kingdom are the latest victims of privacy invasive counter terrorism measures. Scotland Yard recently asked Internet cafe owners to monitor customers' use of public computers. The authorities are encouraging owners to check activity on their computers and keep an eye on any suspicious activity.

Yet police say it's not about asking Internet cafe owners to spy on their customers.

These measures seem unreasonable and privacy invasive, and are likely to be ineffective.

This is similar to monitoring calls on a public phone, it has been pointed out.

Surely a criminal or terrorist using an Internet cafe would be savvy enough to hide their tracks.

Unfortunately, the general public will likely be the unintended victims of this initiative, similar to the suspicions raised against average people taking photographs in public places.

As Simon Davies, director of U.K.-based Privacy International, has said, "What you're going to end up with is a lot of people reporting Muslims in Internet cafes."

Police have stated that Internet cafes often have been used by terrorists and other criminals in order to evade police surveillance. The police noted that the men behind the plot to blow up U.S.-bound passenger jets with liquid explosives secreted into soft drink containers used an Internet cafe to plan their attack.

Posters and computer desktop images of Scotland Yard's logo are being distributed to Internet cafes. They are sternly worded, warning customers against viewing "inappropriate or offensive content," and stating "breaching the above will result in the user's Internet access being terminated immediately and, where appropriate, the police being informed."

This latest initiative can be seen as an extension of the suspicious attitude the UK police have against public photography. There are many reports that average people with cameras often are accused of suspicious activity, just for taking photographs.

In response to public outrage at police searching people's cameras, Scotland Yard posted the following note on their website under "Photography Advice:"

"Officers have the power to view digital images contained in mobile telephones or cameras carried by a person searched under S43 of the Terrorism Act 2000 to discover whether the images constitute evidence that the person is involved in terrorism. Officers also have the power to seize and retain any article found during the search which the officer reasonably suspects may constitute evidence that the person is a terrorist. This includes any mobile telephone or camera containing such evidence."

The official suspicion about photographers seems ironic in a nation having a massive number of surveillance cameras to watch the public's every move.

One has to wonder whether the invasion of privacy, and the air of suspicion and fear such measures foster, is worth it, and whether these measures do anything at all to increase public safety, or are mere security theatre.