New review available

Jolyon Mitchell’s review of my book, Theological Perspectives on a Surveillance Society: Watching and Being Watched, has been published in the new issue of Studies in Christian Ethics (27.1, February 2014).

Journal subscribers (institutional and individual) can read it here.  Sorry, it’s not available on open access.

Posted in surveillance | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Scotland’s Surveillance Future

The Scottish Government has published its White Paper, “Scotland’s Future,” commending a vote for independence at the referendum on 18th September this year.

Surveillance is by no means limited to issues of national security but it is worth considering what the White Paper proposes.

An independent Scotland would have its own, newly established, security and intelligence agency (p. 261). There is the question of whether or not it could be ready by day one of independence, as the White Paper anticipates, to “be responsible for and capable of functions including: investigation of threats…intelligence gathering…cyber security functions” (p.262).

The new agency will be “unconstrained by historical structures and precedent” (p.263). Now, that is a bold claim. Just how freed from “historical structures and precedent” can any agency ever be? The new agency would be operating in a security marketplace that will continue to develop rapidly under commercial and political agendas and influences of which the small country of Scotland will figure rather insignificantly.

Critical to these aspirations seems to be the level of investment. The White Paper draws on an assessment that, based on population, Scotland contributed £206 million in 2012 to the UK agencies’ costs of round £2 billion. The Scottish Government anticipates “maintaining a comparable level of spending under independence” (p.266). It seems to me that simply redirecting one’s share of a large UK security project is not likely to be sufficient because of the loss of economies of scale.

Let me put it this way. The per capita cost of 30 people travelling to the seaside in one bus is much less than the per capita costs for 5 people travelling in one car whilst the remaining 25 continue to travel in the bus.   Costs will be incurred by the 5 “independent” travellers such as insurance (not necessarily proportionately less), vehicle purchase (quite an additional cost in itself), maintenance, running and taxation.  Simply spending 5 times the original per capita costs may well get the 5 “independent” travellers little further than the first service station en route to the seaside.

It could be argued that an independent Scotland might – because of its distancing from, for instance, Blair’s ventures in Iraq  – be less of a target for international terrorism. But that is a risk assessment with significant fiscal implications that needs to be carefully considered.

In the dimension of surveillance policy I have argued elsewhere that the Scottish Parliament has had a good track record (see note below). My point here is not about policy but about the economics of surveillance. Were the new Scottish security and intelligence agency to be set up on a shoe string, the outcome could well be an increase in automated surveillance (because of the limited availability of analysts). This would be a natural bureaucratic response to the fear of missing something vital in surveillance data. Alternatively, an under-financed surveillance and intelligence agency could be dangerously ineffective.   Then again, both might occur (increased and ineffective surveillance).

Quite what the contribution of shared intelligence systems and personnel would be to the economics of surveillance in an independent Scotland are unknown.

I am aware that it might appear that I am arguing for a massive investment in a surveillance agency in an independent Scotland. That is not what I’m saying. I merely observe that the impact of global surveillance markets cannot be glossed over nor ought the loss of economies of scale gained through the UK agencies be so easily ignored in the White Paper.


Note: Stoddart, E. 2012 “Scottish Surveillance Policy: Holding the Line”  In Scottish Devolution and Social Policy: Evidence from the First Decade . Leith, M., McPhee, I. & Laxton, T. (eds.). Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing , pp. 11-29

Posted in economy, interception, Scotland, surveillance | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

“Too much information…”

Calorie Counter and Diet Tracker apps allow me share my diligence over New Year’s Resolutions with the world. The capacity to disseminate my progress via Facebook and Twitter is integrated as optional features.

Should I choose to inflate cyberspace with updates you could learn my goals and know when my resolve breaks.

Of course, unless we meet face-to-face how will you know whether or not I really have achieved and maintained my svelte appearance? Perhaps I have run 5km before breakfast – but then again…?

I caught, the other night, an episode of the BBC’s Dad’s Army that, to my surprise, I’d never seen before. Capt. Mainwaring is intent on successfully bidding for one of the three oranges that Hodges is auctioning at the bazaar in aid of charity for the troops. Being tipped off in advance of Mainwaring’s interest, Hodges tries to ‘not notice’ his archenemy’s bidding signals for the first fuit. Private Pike is told by his ‘uncle’, Sgt. Wilson, to bid for the second orange to secure it for the Captain.

Unable to see Pike, who is behind him, Mainwaring enters a bidding war – ostensibly with himself. The bids climb until Pike withdraws and Mainwaring is left paying 10 shillings for a single orange.

Self-surveilllance is a tricky business especially if you are competitive. Your Facebook friend who is setting the bar high with dieting, cycling or running may be spurring you on – but then again…he might be pulling your leg.

Posted in surveillance, trust | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A surveillance Christmas

The biblical story of Christ’s birth is replete with surveillance.

Mary and Joseph make their way to Bethlehem to fulfil the requirements of a census (no mere counting exercise but one riven with political dimensions).

Shepherds are keeping surveillance over their flocks by night (protecting as well as tallying up each morning).

Joseph is all too-conscious of peer surveillance in Nazareth that would cause Mary shame were he to divorce her quietly.

If we stretch the boundaries of the nativity narratives then the Holy Family have to flee to Egypt because King Herod has been keeping the visiting Magi under surveillance and it about to instigate the slaughter of male infants. This programme of infanticide would have relied on rudimentary – but no less brutal – surveillance of the area.

Beneath the surface of the story lies God’s careful surveillance of this vulnerable family and we can perhaps posit the angelic host as, amongst other roles, God’s surveillance agents.

Watchtowers, a wall, CCTV systems, ‘border’ controls and more opaque technologies of surveillance are today targeting the town of Bethlehem. Surveillance is the lesser-told tale of the first and the latest Christmas.

Posted in Bible, military, police, surveillance | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Canaries to combat surveillance

Wired are carrying an interesting opinion piece by Chris Finan today. He sees the negative impact upon the reputation of IT services companies who have been entangled in the NSA’s surveillance activities as a primary motivator for them to press for change.

These companies’ fight back to reassure their customers (us) that our information is safely guarded will include use of transparency reports and ‘warrant canaries’ (signalling when a government agency request for data-access has been made).

With the publication of the report commissioned by President Obama to review the NSA’s activities (available here via The Guardian),  it will be interesting to see what turns out to be most effective in bringing change: the Executive, the Judiciary, or shareholders.

I’m not sure if it will qualify as ironic if the capitalist motivation for constantly expanding surveillance technologies also proves to be the best restraint of its over-reaching.

Posted in economy, NSA | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

It’s behind you!

“It’s behind you!” has connotations peculiar to audiences familiar with the British pantomime tradition. The warning perhaps takes on a new cadence for Google-dependent internet users.

Google has bought Boston Dynamics to add to Google’s portfolio of robotics companies. Google has reportedly pledged to honour existing military contracts to which Boston Dynamics is committed.

The BBC tells us that Boston Dynamics has developed the world’s fastest running robot. I have yet to work out how comfortable I feel knowing that Google has involvement in this field. I’m even more puzzled how this might fit with Google’s mission statement. Even just noting the first on its list of ten is sobering: “Focus on the user and all else will follow.”

Hopefully Google Glass will have the an add-on “here’s what’s coming up behind you” facility.

Posted in Google, military, surveillance | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The surveillance business, Scotland

Excellent BBC Radio Scotland programme featuring extended section on businesses in Scotland that are providing or designing surveillance systems around the world. Available on BBC iPlayer for the rest of this week.

Posted in economy, Scotland | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Your profession and surveillance?

In yesterday’s Guardian Ross Anderson imagined himself as a professional in different spheres and gave a glimpse of what surveillance means wearing those different hats. So, the advertiser, police officer, lawyer, civil servant, doctor and banker “told” us how mass surveillance systems impact upon their respective responsibilities.

Anyone who still wishes to rely on the defence “if you’ve nothing to hide you’ve nothing to fear” will find Anderson’s piece a salutary introduction to surveillance studies.

What if we added some other professions? School teachers, at least particular figures such as Guidance Teachers, are going to have a significant role in mass surveillance should current Scottish Government proposals in the Children’s and Young People’s Bill come to fruition. Quite what “The Named Person” is going to be expected to do and what access to personal data concerning parents as well as children this member of the school staff will require to ensure children’s wellbeing is under discussion.

(As an aside, this is going to be the topic of a paper I will be presenting at a surveillance studies conference in Spain next year where I will be examining in detail the discussions at the Committee Stage of the Bill as it progresses through the Scottish Parliament.)

Perhaps we could add to Anderson’s list – what does surveillance look like from our respective professions?

Posted in education, surveillance | 1 Comment

New issue of ‘Practical Theology’ journal now available.

Volume 6, Number 3 / 2013 of Practical Theology is now available on the website at

This issue contains:

Editorial – Eric Stoddart, p. 253

What On Earth Is She Thinking Of, Still Attending Church? – Susan Shooter, p. 257

The Use of Scripture in Practical Theology – Mark Cartledge, p. 271

Earthkeeping in the City – Paul Ede, p. 284

In Three Dimensions – Lisa K. Battye, p. 304

Assessing the Effectiveness of Support Strategies in Reducing Professional Burnout Among Clergy Serving in The Presbyterian Church (USA) – Leslie J. Francis, Mandy Robbins, Keith Wulff, p. 319

Trust and Moral Commitment in Co-operative Business – Neil Pembroke, p. 332


Published by: Maney Publishing

Posted in journals, practical theology | Leave a comment

Developing countries block, developed countries spy.

The 2013 Web Index has just been published and amongst its various conclusions it finds that whilst developing countries are most likely to block or filter the web, developed countries are more likely to spy on online communications.

Whilst the UK comes third top, overall in this assessment of the Web’s empowering people, it falls to 24th out of 81 on the index of “freedom and openness.” This sub-Index “assesses the extent to which citizens enjoy rights to information, opinion, expression, safety and privacy online” (Definition here.)

The Web Index found that only five countries in its sample of 81 meet best practice standards with regards to the privacy of electronic communications. The UK drops in the ranking here because a non-particularised warrant is sufficient for interception (Web Index 2013 Report, 3.3).

It’s not that we’re faced with a choice between being blocked or spied upon. There are, as the report demonstrates, more robust protocols for appropriate interception available.

The full report is available here.

Posted in interception, internet, Uncategorized, www | Leave a comment