Friday, 31 October 2014

The extent of this surveillance

Cross-posted at lookatthestateofthat and evilwednesday. Seems to fit with both.

Zoe Williams writes in The Guardian

The first compensation award, of £425,000, has been made to Jacqui, one of the women impregnated in the mid-90s by a police officer pretending to be an activist. She said last year that it felt as though she had been raped by the state

Jacqui says:

“Did he report every contraction back to the police? What use was that for information purposes? That is a moment so intimate, and I shared it with a ghost.”

She said that she felt as though she’d been raped by the state and I can see her point.  Presumably the police officer, Bob Lambert, reported with some regularity to his superiors who saw nothing wrong in beginning and maintaining this relationship through to and beyond childbirth.  As Williams says:

The language doesn’t exist to describe this crime, and that consigns us to imperfect analogies: it is an invasion beyond privacy and beyond sex, into a person’s destiny, holding them hostage forever to the love of a child conceived as the byproduct of state reconnoitre.

How would you feel if your partner – with whom you share a life and a child – turned out to be leading another life, too?  Not ‘just’ something relatively commonplace like an affair but a completely different life, such as having another family with someone else or having lied about their job?  It’s hard to imagine. But to know that the deception was sanctioned and maybe even encouraged by the state in order to catch some criminals who didn’t exist in the first place is a whole new level of unreality. It must be massively dehumanising; the feeling of being used – of being thought of as a tiny cog in a large and futile game – must be devastating. I don’t know what feelings, if any, Lambert had for Jacqui.  But she doesn’t either. All she knows is that the police didn’t. The state that sanctioned their activities didn’t.  She was unwittingly used: and used as part of a surveillance system aimed at the people and ideals she cared most about.The £425k compensation seems meagre at best.

Williams points out something I hadn’t considered:

The impact on Bob Lambert, the police officer, cannot be ignored. His life has been completely denatured by this duplicity. Surveillance, like torture, brutalises the agent as much as it violates the victim

Well, perhaps, but I’m struggling to summon any sympathy. He didn’t have to form a romantic relationship with Jacqui. He sure as shit didn’t have to father her child. He didn’t have to form any kind of intimate relationship – sexual or otherwise with her – in order to do his job. And he didn’t have to do that job.  I feel safe in my assumption that either he thought his actions were justified or even correct, or that he didn’t care whether they were or not.  And he certainly got off lighter than Jacqui in any case.

[…] at some point, it must have been obvious that this woman was not a threat to the state. One day, using average human judgment, of a woman he knew inside out, Lambert must have known that Jacqui was not a terrorist but rather a person of radical views. The thing we will never know is how long after that penny had dropped he continued to spy on her. One year? Three? Five?

I don’t know whether the ‘investigation’ was about Jacqui or her circle of friends and contacts.  But the point is important either way.  How much time, effort and money are the police prepared to spend in investigating a lead that’s leading nowhere? And how many lives are they prepared to ruin in the process?

When, for that matter, did MI5 realise that Eric Hobsbawm had no intention of defecting to Russia, and was simply agitating for radical left possibilities within UK politics? When did it realise that Christopher Hill was not intending to restart the English civil war, with a mind to recreating a Leveller revolution three centuries later? These two men were academics and communists, and last week it emerged that they were trailed by security services for more than three decades. The extent of this surveillance is still considered too incendiary to be released fully into the public domain, with sections still redacted.

Williams suggests two explanations. The first is that – to the police and state – the possession of radical views is tantamount to a crime in itself.  I think that’s almost true.  I think it’s a case of the means justifying the means: circular logic being let out to run riot.  Unlike youths in a town local to me: police are “clamping down” on large gangs of youths gathering in public parks on the grounds that – in their view – no good can come of it. It’s unfortunate for the police that the officer issuing threats against youths and their parents that cannot be legally enforced is called Inspector Button. Aaaaawwww. Anyway, large groups are bound to contain a bad apple and they’re all so close together! If we watch a large group long enough, a crime is certain to occur eventually and we can justify our intolerance of crowds! I’m not sure that the state (at least this state) thinks that activists are automatically evil, but that some of them are likely to be and that catching one justifies enormous taxpayer expense (that’s enormous expense, not necessarily an enormous taxpayer) and the devastation of innocent people’s lives.

I agree more closely with Williams’ second explanation:

Once you start spying on somebody, it is incredibly difficult to stop

This seems about right. We humans love nothing more than to throw money after bad. It’s the basis of the Gambler’s Ruin. We’ve spent so much without results that someone – and it might be me – is going to get in trouble. So we show progress in ever finer detail but rarely have the guts to call it quits. I’ve done it in various roles as an academic, a software engineer, a project manager and a human being. But in addition to that, Williams suggests that the police and other authorities just really love spying on people and don’t want to stop. I think that’s true too. I mean both spying in general and spying on individuals.

Once you’ve started, the piece of evidence that comprehensively proves innocence doesn’t exist. All that exists is absence, the lack of definitive proof of guilt. One more push might be all it takes.

Yes. This is true regardless of whether authorities view dissent itself as guilt. As I said, some people think that the means justifies the means. The means exist in anticipation of an end but they don’t seem to rely on one. Hence surveillance in the wider context, too.

Williams writes a lot of nonsense about Russell Brand, for some reason. He hasn’t been “monstered” as she suggests. He’s been told off in the papers because of his immature and ill-considered views, but has been lionised in about equal measure. He hasn’t been vanished or curtailed, he’s been granted podia at which to air his views regardless of never having earned it by, for instance, actually having something to say. Let’s not consider him someone who’s been demonised because of his off-centre beliefs. If anything, the opposite is true.

But I liked some of the things Williams said that were not about Russell Brand.  Every time we allow our government to spy on us a little bit more… Well, you know the rest.

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