Water cannon on the streets of London: Does it matter what Londoners think?

ImagePhotograph: Kerim Okten/EPA

Has anybody ever asked for your opinion and then done the complete opposite of what you suggest? It often happens to me when giving directions: I must look geographically competent from several yards away, but up close I clearly don’t know my left from my right.

You may be surprised to hear that Boris Johnson himself, The Mayor of London, recently asked for your opinion about something. He’s had his eye on some new toys you see: three large water cannon to be deployed on the streets of London in the event of “riots or other serious and exceptional public disorder“. Here is a brief introduction to water cannon and the kind of damage they can cause [warning: contains a graphic image]:

Unfortunately Johnson’s idea of a consultation process is akin to whispering “Can you direct me to the British Library?” when you’re standing alone in your hotel room. How many Londoners actually knew they could make their views heard?

It gets worse. Under the rosy illusion that they might actually influence Johnson’s decision, some Londoners did  make contributions during the six week consultation period, but Johnson has ignored them. Despite overwhelming opposition against the introduction of water cannon, Johnson has gone ahead and bought them anyway.

Not only that, The Mayor’s Office has had the tenacity to spin the findings of the consultation in their favour, declaring that Londoners are

strongly in favour of the introduction of the availability of water cannons.

It is a clumsy statement, but its also grossly misleading as I will outline below. If you wish, you can read the results of the consultation for yourself here.

Firstly, the main finding of the consultation (which The Mayor’s Office press release has neglected to mention) was that 98% (2,547) of people  who e-mailed in were opposed to the introduction of water cannon compared to  2% (59) of people who supported the idea.Those in opposition told Johnson they were concerned that water cannon

  • Are dangerous military-style weapons that have no place in a democratic country with a reputation for tolerant, unarmed policing.
  • Could cause serious injury
  • Could escalate violent situations.
  • Were symbols of oppression, fear, and a ‘police state’.
  • Could damage the relationship between the police and the public.
  • Are indiscriminate, affecting not only ‘genuine’ targets but also innocent protesters or even bystanders who happen to be nearby.
  • Could deter people from protesting, suppressing the legitimate right to protest peacefully.
  • Would probably not be effective on London’s narrow streets or in fast-moving public disorder situations like those seen in August, 2011, a view that has also been stated by the police.
  • Would not necessarily be used ‘as a last resort’ as the police were promising. The police have broken similar promises before about kettling, tasers, and ‘stop and search’.

How has the Mayor’s Office managed to spin this in their favour? The consultation process also involved an online poll of 4,223 people from which they have extracted the following statistic:

over two thirds of respondents (68 per cent) were supportive of the use of water cannon in limited circumstances.

In fact this is seriously misleading. The exact question that respondents were asked was:

Do you agree that there is a ‘small, limited role’ for water cannons in dealing with the most serious public disorder on the streets of London? Serious public disorder being where there is potential for loss of life , serious injury of widespread destruction to property.

Clearly this question has been phrased in such a way that it is difficult to say no. It’s a bit like me asking you if it would be ok to fumigate your house in the event of severe infestation by poisonous, furniture-eating ants. It is hard to say no, even if you’re not a big fan of fumigation.

Critically, there is no guarantee that water cannon would only be used in the type of circumstances described in the question. During the student tuition fees protests of 2011, the police sanctioned the use of rubber bullets. The definition of ‘serious public disorder’ overlaps clumsily with the right to peaceful protest. To make matters worse, it is not even clear who would be responsible for authorising the use of water cannon, never mind the circumstances in which it they might be deployed.

Not only is the question misleading, the respondents themselves reported that they barely know anything about water cannon. The Mayor’s Office press release doesn’t bother to mention it, but you can read it for yourself in the consultation report. In response to this question:

Water cannons are police vehicles that spray jets of water. They can be used to create distance and to hold back crowds. How much would you say you know about water cannons?

This is the proportion of respondents who chose the following options:

  • ‘Know a lot’ = 13%
  • ‘Know a little’ = 52%
  • ‘Not a lot’ = 27%
  • ‘Nothing at all’ =  8%

In other words 87% of the 4,200 poll respondents admitted that they did not know much about water cannon. These hardly seem like the right people to be asking.

There’s more. I haven’t yet mentioned the petition against the use of water cannon submitted by change.org to the tune of 37,000 signatories (at the time of writing the petition has reached 44,268, add your name here). And in an unexpected slap on the back for democracy, London’s political representatives have actually represented the views of Londoners. 20 out of 25 London Assembly members – from all parties – voted against the purchase of water cannon last February. Even the Home Secretary hasn’t reached a decision yet about whether to sanction their use on the UK mainland.

It is becoming a tired cliché that whenever a politician instigates a controversial plan, you can find a quote from their recent past in which they promised not to do that thing. In a 2010 Mayor’s Question Time Johnson told the London Assembly:

“It is certainly my view that we are not instinctively in favour of ratcheting up the panoply of implements of crowd control in this city. This is a free city which has a great tradition of free speech. We do not want to see any kind of arms race with protestors. At the moment there are no plans to go, for instance, for water cannon.”

In a democracy you do not buy weapons to use against your own people.

We told them that, but they didn’t listen.


Don’t Spy On Us: A Day of Action

Don't Spy On UsThe following describes my experiences at the Don’t Spy On Us Day of Action, held at Shoreditch Town Hall on Saturday 7th June 2014. It’s a fairly long blow-by-blow account of the sessions I attended so you may wish to use the contents and skip to the sections you are most interested in.

It is over a year now since Edward Snowden first revealed the extent to which the security services of the United Kingdom (GCHQ) and The United States of America (NSA) were conducting mass communications surveillance on their own citizens.

Today, several activist groups who campaign for liberty, privacy, and free speech, organised a Day of Action under the banner “Don’t Spy On Us” to discuss the impact of the revelations, decide how best to raise awareness amongst the general public, and learn some of the practical skills that could help to reclaim online privacy and secure communication.

First of course, we queue. Usually when you are working your way to the back of a queue you are looking forward to finding the end, but as I walked this jittery line I felt happier with each step. Since the Snowden revelations first broke, I have been quietly traumatised by the issue of mass surveillance, and I quickly realised that few of the people I spoke to about it felt the same way. Now as I walk along the queue, each step tells me I’m not alone,  and that feeling of isolation slips its anchor.

As with most British queues, this one is entirely unnecessary and solely the result of people arriving far too early for an event that they already have tickets for. I make a new acquaintance: a warm and eager chap who has come over from Cambridge, bald on top but with splendid compensatory side-boards. We share a few nervous “surveillance jokes”:

…good opportunity to get us all together isn’t it? While we’re standing in a bloody great big line like fish who have voluntarily thrown themselves into the net…

We feign jovial paranoia but our skittish eyes betray a deep-seated and genuine fear that we are actually under surveillance… right now. Outside of that queue, most people only get the first bit: jovial paranoia.

The second most popular British pastime other than queuing is asking other people who are queueing why they are queueing. Predictably then, we receive several such enthusiastic inquiries but unfortunately, we disappoint.  Apparently,

we are attending a day of activism to raise awareness about the dangers of state-sanctioned mass surveillance against its own citizens

…is not what these people were hoping to hear. These are the people we need to convince and as we will find out later, that is not the way to do it.

At this moment my attention is seized by some activity on the steps of the town hall. Unadvisedly, one of the event organisers has appeared and raised her mobile phone to take a photograph, only to send several queue members reeling and shielding their faces. Paranoia? Yeah, probably. This time.

Finally we make it into the large assembly hall, which is unfortunately lit like a dank basement and has a Roman-esque feel, complete with gold-leaf trimmings and pillars illuminated in a soft, red light. But as the event gets going, I quickly forget the surroundings as I am plunged into the kind of debate I have been craving for over a year.

Dont Spy On Usvia @arusbridger

>>> Read on for the whole report or follow the links below to go directly to individual sessions <<<


Opening speeches: Setting the scene
[with Mike Harris, Stephen Fry, and Cory Doctorow]

Session One: A personal account of the Snowden revelations
[with Alan Rusbridger and Josie Rourke]

Session Two: The future for mass surveillance
[with Jo Glanville, Cory Doctorow, Richard Aldrich, and Carly Nyst]

Session Three: Convincing people that mass surveillance matters
[with Tim Duffy from M&C Saatchi]

Session Four: How mass surveillance restricts press freedom
[with Jo Glanville, Ewen MacAskill, Duncan Campbell, Kate Goold, and Tim Dawson]

Session Five: How do we fight back against surveillance?
[with Ewen MacAskill, Jimmy Wales, Shami Chakrabarti, and Bruce Schneier]


Opening speeches: Setting the scene
[with Mike Harris, Stephen Fry, and Cory Doctorow]

Mike Harris, campaign director for Don’t Spy On Us, kicks things off by quoting one of the windows in this very town hall, which fortuitously reads:

More Light, More Power.

A powerful video message from Stephen Fry follows. He looks tired as he eloquently outlines the situation we are in. I’ll let him speak for himself:

Now Cory Doctorow takes the stand and provides a breathless account of some of the more technological aspects of the surveillance issue. He highlights how society is now firmly embedded in computer technology:

if you live in a house, you live in a giant computer

…and yet most of us lack the kind of technical knowledge that we need to properly understand how this affects the things that we (presumably) care about most, like privacy and personal security. He suggests that the pervasiveness of technology is dangerous because it can be exploited by those with malicious intent. He’s not just talking about your Internet browser. It won’t be long before typical household appliances are wired in to the net, exposing them to outside control. Google, for example, has recently acquired a company called Nest who produce ‘smart thermostats’, self-learning, Wi-Fi enabled devices that monitor various environmental variables in your home (e.g. lighting) and adjust the temperature automatically.

Once devices like this are connected to the Internet, they can be controlled wirelessly, and potentially ‘hacked’ by someone with malicious intent. The only barrier to this is the software in the device which should only allow you, the owner of the device, to control it.

How incredible then that the NSA has been deliberately *encouraging* security holes to be left in software so that they can exploit them for surveillance purposes. It’s a bit like leaving your back door open whilst you go on holiday and assuming that only your next door neighbour is aware that your house has a back to it.

You digital life is being made deliberately vulnerable

Although ‘nerds’ appreciated the threat early on and started developing counter-measures, it is time for

privacy tools for everyday people

Doctorow suggests that currently it is too easy for the security services to spy on everybody, so we need to raise the bar. If we all start using privacy and personal security tools, it will increase the cost of surveillance to such a degree that it will only be viable for the security agencies to direct their efforts at real targets (i.e. individuals for whom there is reasonable prior suspicion). A ferocious start to the day, and time for a coffee from the happiest catering team I have ever encountered.

Session One: A personal account of the Snowden revelations
[with Alan Rusbridger and Josie Rourke]

Next up is a Q&A with Alan Rusbridger, Editor of The Guardian Newspaper, chaired by Josie Rourke, Artistic Director at Donmar Warehouse. Rusbridger says the last year has been

interesting, frenetic, and paranoid.

He recalls the moment when the significance of Edward Snowden’s revelations hit home. Ewan MacAskell, The Guardian security correspondent who had been dispatched to Hong Kong with Glenn Greenwald, told Rusbridger that this was

the biggest story of our lives.

As the first revelations were published, Rusbridger describes how The Guardian came under increasing pressure from the UK Government to stop reporting the story. It would seem that UK law is grossly deficient in its provision for a free press, most of which is based on tradition rather than a clear legal framework. By contrast, The First Amendment of The United States Constitution provides substantial protection of free speech.

all the time in London I had the feeling that something bad was going to happen

And indeed, something very bad did happen. On Saturday 20th July, two technicians from GCHQ oversaw the destruction of hard drives containing Snowden material in the Guardian’s offices in London. You can actually watch it happening here:

This was all despite Rusbridger assuring the Cabinet Secretary that the material was already backed-up elsewhere (in Glenn Greenwald‘s home in Rio, and in The Guardian’s New York offices) and would continue to be reported on. This bizarre act, Rusbridger suggests, meant that the Government had completely lost any control over the story.

Rourke asks Rusbridger about the time he was questioned before the Home Affairs Select Committee, and in particular she wants to know about his reaction to a question by Keith Vaz: “Do you love this country?”

Rusbridger admits that he was ‘taken aback’ by the question, but sticks by his response. The things about this country that he loves are

the nature of democracy, the nature of a free press and the fact that one can, in this country, discuss and report these things.

[quote from Rusbridger’s response to the Select Committee]

Rourke says that most people do not seem to care about mass surveillance, does Rusbridger think that is true?  Most people are convinced by the ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ argument, he says. However, he suggests that making the issue more tangible and relevant to the individual can be a powerful convincer. He gives a concrete example of showing people the location data stored on their phone at a dinner party. Suddenly the issue becomes very tangible when you can point to their previous location on a map and say

what were you doing at 6am in morning in Stoke Newington?

Rusbridger also counters the argument that mass surveillance is acceptable because it is under democratic control and has a robust oversight regime. One only need look at how eerily quiet parliament has been on this issue to appreciate how little oversight there is. There is

an awful complacency

amongst our politicians. Do they even know the right questions to ask?

Finally, Rourke asks if the revelations have changed Rusbridger’s own behaviour, to which he candidly replies

It would be astonishing if they weren’t monitoring my life very closely. So I work under the assumption that they do.

I think he is an incredibly brave man.


Session Two: The future for mass surveillance
[with Jo Glanville, Cory Doctorow, Richard Aldrich, and Carly Nyst]

Carly Nyst of Privacy International points the way forward with a series of clearly articulated and eminently sensible principles under which surveillance of an individual’s communications would be acceptable:


Nyst suggests that the existing legal framework: The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act is simply not good enough. Just because the technology exists for mass surveillance to be possible, does not mean it should just happen regardless of its infringement of our rights.

Richard Aldrich, a Professor of International Security at the University of Warwick describes the security services’ ability to store, analyse, and collect this volume of information as ‘terrifying’. Rather depressingly he suggests that

privacy is in the intensive care ward now and its dying… we need to get over that.

His point is that these huge volumes of personal data exist, whether they have been collected by corporations or governments, and the argument should now focus on who controls it.

Nyst makes a similar point, acknowledging a large amount of data is being collected, and suggesting that

Privacy is the ability to choose who has access to our data and how it is used

Cory Doctorow, who is co-editor of the blog Boing Boing, argued that one of the main barriers to understanding privacy is the long time separation of action and consequence. He provides a nice analogy: before digital cameras, you would take a photograph and have no idea what it looked like until the film was processed some time later. Similarly, it can be difficult to imagine how  information we post about ourselves online could affect us in the future.

Doctorow also makes some interesting points about young Internet users. He suggests there is a common perception that teenagers are “digital natives” as if they were born with some innate ability to interact and understand computers. This leads to the misconception that they do not care about privacy because of the amount of personal information they appear to volunteer online. Doctorow suggests that

[teenagers] are concerned about privacy, they are just getting it wrong.

Later Jimmy Wales spoke on this topic and cited the growing use of Snapchat amongst teenagers, a company that provides a ‘self-destructing’ text and photo messaging service, shows that they wish to share private information without it being recorded and preserved on a database somewhere. Doctorow ends with a powerful message:

Privacy for the weak, transparency for the strong


During the break I see two effortlessly fashionable teenagers wearing EFF caps. I decide I would like an EFF cap, even though I’m not a hat person.




Session Three: Convincing people that mass surveillance matters
[with Mike Harris, and Tim Duffy from M&C Saatchi]

This session is all about convincing people that they ought to be concerned about mass surveillance. Mike Harris poses three specific questions:

What is the message?

How do we frame it?

How do we persuade?

Tim Duffy from advertising agency M&C Saatchi has sketched out a few ideas that might help. He begins by saying we need to follow his company’s motto:

Brutal simplicity of thought

In other words, get to the point.

Duffy believes there are two major barriers facing an anti-surveillance public information campaign:

  1. Invisibility creates apathy
  2. Fear of terrorism beats fear of privacy intrusion

The former he says, is a problem of intangibility. This reminds me of something Season Butler said recently about tangibility in political campaigns. She said that the critical test for a successful political message is

Could your kids draw it with crayons?

[paraphrased, from The Dangerous Times Festival]

How does one draw mass surveillance? But Duffy thinks this is the least of our worries. The second problem is far worse: fear of terrorism always seems to beat fear of privacy intrusion. Duffy points out that this is a false dichotomy – you do not have to have one or the other. We need an intelligent approach to spying that maximises the privacy of innocent individuals and the ability of the security services to stop terrorists. And so we need to change the argument. How about something like this?

Spying: Where do you draw the line?

Duffy then gives some specific examples of how this campaign message might be implemented. First a poster (unfortunately I do not have the images):

You understand the need for spying. But who should set the limits?

A. The American government

B. The UK spy agencies

C. Us

Duffy also has some great ideas about tackling the intangibility question. This is another poster idea:

The data from your phone call has been intercepted, checked, and stored by the government. Where are you?

A. North Korea

B. China

C. Shoreditch High Street

A bit London-centric perhaps but you get the point. Another nice idea was a story (perhaps to be delivered as a television advert) about a father working overseas calling home on Skype to read his son a bedtime story. Just as the story is beginning, the viewer is asked:

Which of the people below is it acceptable to be listening in on your call?

A. Your daughter

B. Your wife

C. An member of the security services

One of Duffy’s slightly more quirky ideas was to hire a transit van and mock it up with lots of random ‘technological gadgets’, cameras, satalite dishes etc, a GCHQ logo, and the slogan:

Spying on you since 2009

(although unfortunately the year would need to be much earlier than that).

At this point, part of the ceiling fell in sparking yet another round of nervous ‘surveillance jokes’.

Session Four: How mass surveillance restricts press freedom
[with Jo Glanville, Ewen MacAskill, Duncan Campbell, Kate Goold, and Tim Dawson]

As if we were not already convinced about the seriousness of this issue, Duncan Campbell, an investigative reporter who has been writing about surveillance issues for over three decades, declares:

I have been too cautious.

He is deeply concerned that the apparatus of mass surveillance could be abused by those who wish to control the population:

You don’t need the jackboot on the street if you can place the jackboot in the mind.

Ewen MacAskill of the Guardian states that Britain’s reputation abroad has been severely damaged.

We were seen as a bastion of free speech

…but The Guardian has faced threats of closure, a criminal investigation, the illegitimate detention of David Miranda (see below), and the destruction of computer hard drives in the Guardian’s London offices. Even in America, Guardian journalists had to work out of an office in the New York Times building to avoid harassment by UK officials.

It was like we had our own embassy at the New York Times. I worked out of there for 3 months.

Kate Goold is the solicitor representing David Miranda, the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who was detained at Heathrow airport under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act. Goold describes Schedule 7 as

draconian legislation

because there is no caveat of ‘reasonable suspicion’ required for its use. Any individual in a British port or airport can be detained for up to 9 hours, be compelled to answer questions, and have their possessions seized. She describes the Miranda incident as a

state-directed operation to seize journalistic material that could embarrass the government.

She says that the use of Schedule 7 to detain Miranda contravened The Human Rights Act, including:

  1. The right to liberty
  2. The right to a private family life
  3. The right to freedom of expression

There is some discussion about why The Guardian has been the only newspaper reporting on the issue on mass surveillance. MacAskill seems to suggest that part of the problem is that other journalists/editors don’t like The Guardian. Tim Dawson of The National Union of Journalists suggests that there is a:

culture of fear

in British newsrooms. He thinks that even though journalists at other papers may have wanted to write about it, the story was suppressed by management.

Campbell however, gets right to the root of the problem. He explains that Britain has a D-Notice system, a throwback from World War One when the government advised newspapers to suppress stories that might compromise national security. The system was, and still is, voluntary, but Campbell says the majority of the British press are overwhelmingly subservient to the British state. More generally, he thinks that the current generation is apathetic about liberty because they have not been exposed to historical events that illustrate its importance. Campbell believes that the Snowden revelations are

a wake up call for liberty.

And incredibly, at that moment, a wonderful shaft of white light bursts in through the gap in the ceiling caused when part of the roof fell in. A startling and most welcome coincidence.


Session Five: How do we fight back against surveillance?
[with Ewen MacAskill, Jimmy Wales, Shami Chakrabarti, and Bruce Schneier]

What a fantastic day and we can still look forward to the headline act. Bruce Schneier, a technology expert who has been working on these issues for over a decade, gets us off to an optimistic start.

The NSA is not magic. They are subject to the laws of economics, physics, and mathematics.

Knowing these weakness points to how we can protect ourselves. Doctorow tapped into this argument earlier in the day when he suggested that individuals should use online privacy tools to increase the cost of spying. The security services have limited resources, and this method could force them to reduce the scale of the surveillance system and only target genuine suspects.

Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, also points to a technological solution. Why aren’t all website communications encrypted these days? Wales also highlights that young people are disillusioned by politicians who don’t understand or appreciate their views about Internet openness and freedom.

Shami Chakrabarti, The Director of Liberty, says that the ‘securocrats’ did not consult the people or our political representatives before implementing this system of mass surviellance, and that is not acceptable in a democracy. As to the future, she was optimistic, believing that the privacy movement is gaining support:

  • courts care
  • corporations care
  • people care

Eventually the government must care! The Berlin Wall fell, apartheid in South Africa was quashed, and now, we can reign in mass surveillance. She echos a common theme of the day – no one is opposing surveillance per se – it is mass, unchecked surveillance of innocent citizens which we are fighting.

There are some great questions from the audience in this session. One woman has the brilliant idea of taking the much touted phrase “Nothing to fear, nothing to hide” and turning it on the government, echoing Cory Doctorow’s earlier statement: “privacy for the weak, transparency for the strong“.

Caspar Bowen, in the audience, wonders why much of the discussion in the US has been almost exclusively about the infringement of the rights of Americans and ignored the effects of NSA surveillance on non-Americans. Chakrabarti says this highlights the need for a Human Rights Act, rather than individual charters for individual states (cf. recent attempts to a establish a “British Bill of Rights“). In an increasingly globalised world, when travelling times are short and we occupy shared spaces on the Internet, we need fundamental protections for the human rather than mixed standards between states. Schneier believes that boycotting US products and services could put help to put pressure on US legislators.

Another audience member asks whether we can keep the mechanisms of mass surveillance, and then only allow them to be used with a court order. The panel resoundingly answers no! This is another theme that has run through the day. The mass surveillance system that has been put in place is a severe threat because of its potential to be misused, either by states or malicious individuals.

Finally, the panel offer their thoughts on the importance of privacy. Chakrabarti notes that privacy must be protected because it is fundamentally linked to so many other basic rights. For example, undermining privacy, also undermines the right to a secret ballot. She also warns of the cultural effects that a loss of privacy would entail and recommends the film The Lives of Others (which I agree is chillingly superb). In the film (and of course, in real life), the all-seeing eye of the Stasi undermined privacy and lead to a fundamental breakdown in social trust.

Schneier’s closing statement makes me shiver. The wider issue, he says, is that we are losing the ephemeral (when things exist only briefly) nature of day-to-day conversation. Soon everything will be recorded and we need to decide as a society what to do about that.

As the session closes, a member of the Open Rights Group leaps up onto the stand. Perhaps he sensed the slightly dampened spirit of the crowd. This was, after all, a day of action and in that spirit he encourages us to:

And then, to enormous cheers from the crowd, he encourages us all to ring The House of Commons on Monday morning at 9am to demand that they curtail mass surveillance and save democracy. He reads out the number twice for good measure, but I think he could have kept have going for several minutes before the cheers died down.