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Smart Justice

by Bryan Gibson (author of The Pocket A-Z of Criminal Justice)

(page 3 of 4)

The Stasi – the post-war East German secret police – obviously had nothing to do with the events of an earlier era. But the Stasi regime which was based on that of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR or “Soviet Union”) and of the KGB was also one of repression, fear and unspecified crimes and allegations. The sheer ordinariness of Stasi HQ causes the passer-by to blink. Like some 1950s university set around a pleasant courtyard, this is the very home of surveillance where data was kept on every citizen, much of it fed to the Stasi by volunteers in the community, including neighbours or even relatives. No one knew if uncle Fritz was a spy. The primitive technology of espionage in the display cabinets raises the question what the Stasi might have achieved with cyberspace and DNA. The Orwellian “Records Office” next door is an integral part of this, a building of gigantic proportions that might nowadays be replaced by a few microchips.

Eerily unsupervised I was able to wander the former corridors of power, sit where the Stasi chief of police (himself later prosecuted for murder) sat, and look down on the world from the top floor. Why did no one in the Eastern bloc ask questions? Because they were cowed into submission and East Germany was a police state through and through, of course, not in the gradual, creeping, “smart justice” sense. Police states come in all shapes and sizes, including the (supposedly) democratic version in which too much power passes into the hands of the police, or where the rights of citizens are altered or adjusted so that policing by consent becomes policing by political dictat. No-one ever challenged Tony Blair that fateful day in the House of Commons when – in response to murmurings in the back bench ether – he paused to ask, “Did somebody say ‘Police State’?” Just complete silence. A stunned chamber. As I have indicated, it all depends on your definition. “Creeping police statism”, if you like – and a modern lifestyle-cum-genre in which police chases or bashing down someone’s door have become preferred viewing, cold cases (solved and unsolved) litter programme schedules, and crime and punishment passes for and often dominates light entertainment, discussion programmes and phone-ins.’ Where are those police leaders who fought to ensure justice, ethics, integrity, principles, decency and community policing proper in which both sides actually had a say? Hiding in the woods also, I guess.

We are now the most surveillance-prone nation on the planet; and, some people might think, our police are the most unnecessarily macho, overdressed, increasingly over-armed and likely to follow orders without question. Giving to the police what should be court powers and justice based powers will only encourage such traits. Justice will not only be done differently but with a heavy hand, the risk of aggression and reaction, escalation and conflict. No doubt many police officers are already buoyed-up by the plethora of 3,000 largely unidentifiable crimes that have been created since New Labour first came into power which does little in itself for a modest, softly, softly attitude. Smart justice indeed!

Where the Stasi left off there is the new corps of spies, neighbours, colleagues, doctors, dustmen, the man on the bus, all of whom and many more are being encouraged to report you and provide other intelligence. Already the Government knows more about you than you might think or like and the police are gearing up to access a mass of other data. Who for instance authorized insurance companies to provide your details so that these are instantly available at the roadside? Or fingerprinting motorists? Whatever the benefits in solving cold cases, how ever did Parliament come to accept DNA-testing on arrest at the same time as police powers of arrest were being watered down so that you can now be arrested for any offence at will and on the merest pretext and which is increasingly automatic so as to bring in other powers? Who invented “harvesting intelligence” (setting a computer to trawl a database on the off-chance of discovering offences or leads) and when will this method of policing, for example, bank accounts under the guise of money laundering investigations become the standard way of investigating everything from fraud to tax evasion to VAT carousels (they could be looking at your account right now as part of an inquiry into someone else’s affairs)? Who decided that various agencies would share data? Who made it an offence for your solicitor or accountant not to report you to the police following a suspect private consultation? And who keeps changing the language, making it ever more difficult to disagree with the way in which a particular move or development is presented. For the ordinary law-abiding citizen, the increasing scope for misuse of private information through joined up and widely accessible databases, and fear of not knowing who knows what about whom, or who is looking into whose personal computer under similar ruses, is potentially quite frightening. Much of this information will be accessed instantaneously once biometrics take-over. Stasi-like, only more so.

Continued ... page 1 2 3 4

© Bryan Gibson 2007. This article appeared in Justice of the Peace in March 2007

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