A Surveillance Society - but is anyone watching?

The publication of the recent House of Lord report , the debate over ill-drafted proposals for data sharing and the consultation over the implementation of the EU Data retention directive have triggerred a rash of press cover on surveillance. The National Audit Office plans to look at value for money in HMG spend on e-crime. The time has come for a similar study into the value of its spend on electronic surveillance.


The Bourne Supremacy is splendid advertorial for the CCTV industry. There may even be as many cameras in and around Waterloo Station as are claimed. But how many are in working order, let alone switched on and available for monitoring by a human being? How many are  linked to software than might enable even the crudest of operational image processing? Is anyone looking at the monitors? Is anyone doing so in direct those who should take immediate action as a result of what they see?


The scale of waste becomes apparent when one learns that most of the government schemes for local CCTV were to fund for installation: plus maintenance and communication cost for a couople of years. Little, if any, was for humans to look at the screens – let alone respond to what they saw.


The feral predators, who the CCTV is supposed to deter, “know”; from the collective wisdom of past “immunity”, that they can ignore most of that supposedly covering “their” territory. In the unlikely event that a camera is real, working and recording identifiable images, these will not be looked at by a human, let alone used against them in court. 


And the same is true in the on-line world.


Who, if anyone, ever looks at all those incident logs, let alone does anything as a result of looking at the analyses – other than include the totals in their next budget bid?


And what about all that transaction data that regulators want retained, sometimes for months, years or, sometimes, even decades


An exercise by the National Audit Office to look at the cost effectiveness of Central Government spend on surveillance and data retention could be a long overdue embarrassment to a multi-billion pound snake-oil industry. It could free resource to help mainstream business, as well as telcos and ISPs, to counter, not just survive, on-line assault.  


It might even enable Home Office to provide realistic funding towards the co-ordination of efforts to “remove” serial miscreants – including the small number of cyber-criminal consortia who give employment to a multi-billion pound (in the UK alone) electronic security industry. 


But that latter comment pre-judges some of the possible findings of the currently expected NAO study. I expect it to find that HMG gets incredible value for money from the peanuts it prpvides in support of under-funded collaborative initiatives like Get Safe On-Line and the new Police Central E-Crime unit.


However, it might also find evidence of incredible waste: the savings that could have been made had resources been available to follow up what was found during some of the NHTCU investigations. This supposedly included prima facie evidence of large scale computer-managed benefit and mortgage fraud (not just “sub-prime” but “real-crime”). The latter was of the type and scale that appears to have helped trigger the collapse of the former northern building societies and subsequent government bail out.