The Samovar

Function creep: surveillance in London
July 17, 2007, 1:42 pm
Filed under: Civil Liberties, ID Cards, Politics, Security, Surveillance Society, Terrorism

Function creep is a very useful concept for understanding government and surveillance. When a new technology is introduced to do one thing (one function), and is later used for an entirely different thing, that’s function creep. It often seems as though governments plan to bring in potentially unpopular technologies by exploiting function creep. It goes like this: the government wants to do X where X requires some new and expensive technology Y. Unfortunately for them, X is fairly unpopular and if everyone knows that they’re spending money on Y in order to do X then there’ll be a huge fuss about it in the papers. So what they do is invent a new and popular thing Z that also requires the technology Y. When they’re building Y they say it’s for Z, but all the time they have in the back of their mind that they’ll introduce X later on.

Function creep is one reason why civil liberties campaigners are so worried about ID cards. The government plans to introduce them as a non-compulsory thing which will only be used in ways that are useful to most people, or for purposes that are popular (like being nasty to immigrants, or catching terrorists). It won’t actually do those things effectively, but that doesn’t matter because that’s not what they’re really for. It’s really there to build a large database on everyone to make the job of the civil service and police that much easier, and it may also undergo function creep in the future to make it compulsory to have one, and maybe later than that to make it compulsory to always carry it, etc.

Today the BBC reports an interesting example of function creep in London.

Police are to be given live access to London’s congestion charge cameras – allowing them to track all vehicles entering and leaving the zone.

The reason given is terrorism:

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith blamed the “enduring vehicle-borne terrorist threat to London” for the change.

There is function creep going on at many levels here. The first is that an infrastructure of cameras built to help manage congestion in London is now going to be used for routine surveillance by the police. Would we have agreed to a network of cameras being built in order to spy on us all the time? Almost certainly not, but they can just apply function creep to a system that’s already there. In this case, it was almost certainly opportunistic rather than planned function creep.

There’s also a hint as to some planned function creep:

But they will only be able to use the data for national security purposes and not to fight ordinary crime, the Home Office stressed.

In other words: don’t complain about this on civil liberties grounds, we’re only going to use it on terrorists. For the moment.

This is suspect for two reasons. First of all, they might change their minds about it in the future. Alarm bells should be going off when they reassure us it won’t be used to fight ordinary crime, given that the actual dangers associated to ordinary crime are so much larger than the negligible threat of terrorism. Secondly, because they’re already using terrorism laws in ordinary police work:

Since 2001, some 436 people have been charged in relation to terrorism investigations. Almost 200 of these were under standard criminal offences such as conspiracy to murder.

And let’s not forget Walter Wolfgang, the Labour party member who was kicked out of the party conference and detained under anti-terrorism legislation for shouting the word “Nonsense!”.

To finish off with, the article also makes a passing reference to an earlier function creep:

Although charges are only in force at peak times, the system runs 24 hours a day, a TfL spokesman said.

In other words, the system was already being used as a de facto surveillance infrastructure – running when it had absolutely no need to in order to carry out its stated and original function.

Update (18 July 2007): And for anyone who thought I was being paranoid, only one day later plans to extend this scheme nationwide for use in fighting ordinary crime were leaked to the Guardian. SpyBlog has more in depth coverage.