July 2, 2009


TAKING LIBERTIES: WE ARE BEING WATCHED: Britan has quietly become the most spied-upon nation in Europe. How? Why? And does it matter? Charles Nevin goes to Manchester, London, Berlin and Bucharest to compare, contrast and discuss ... (Charles Nevin, Summer 2009, INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine)

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, 2000 (RIPA), one of a series of laws introduced to combat modern terrorism, sets out the conditions for surveillance by the police and security services. It has also been used by other public bodies for electronic and manual surveillance aimed at exposing lesser threats to society. In Cambridge last year the council used hidden CCTV cameras to check whether punt operators were using unauthorised landing places. In Poole the council followed a family, day and night, who were suspected of lying about their address on a school application form. In all, some three-quarters of Britain’s local authorities have used the act as a weapon in the unceasing fight against dog fouling and putting the rubbish out too early, enjoying a 9% success rate in prosecutions, cautions or fixed penalties.

The flavour of Ealing comedy accompanying so many British activities is absent at the other end of the operation, where the Control Order is surveillance made easy by house arrest and electronic tagging without the necessity for a charge or open testing of evidence. In between lie the fruits of the new electronic technology, enticing to the authorities, evil to increasing numbers in Britain, from the robust inheritors of Tom Paine and John Wilkes to such establishment figures as a former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, a former director of public prosecutions, a former director general of MI5, and the current information commissioner of the United Kingdom. The last of these, Richard Thomas, has been loud in warning. His soundbite “sleepwalking into surveillance” has been opposition shorthand since 2004. The former MI5 boss, Dame Stella Rimington, has matched it with talk of “a police state”. The former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham, doesn’t deal in soundbites but is no less compelling, as we shall see.

Sleepwalkers should feel free to scan our information (below) on surveillance by numbers. One feature meriting special notice concerns DNA, a seemingly miraculous aid to order brought into disrepute by the mechanics of its operation: the indefinite retention by the police of DNA samples taken not only from convicted criminals, but from 1m people, including perhaps 100,000 children, who have committed no offence and have in many cases only been witnesses to one. Lovers of renowned dystopian visions of state control will appreciate the attendant language. A 2006 report on reforming public services speaks of “transformational government”, “the totality of the relationship with the citizen”, and, best of all, the establishment of “a single source of truth” on each individual. In April 2009 that fantasy came close to reality, when the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, published a white paper proposing a central government database tracking all electronic communications—every e-mail, every phone call, every text. Smith then backed down from a single database, but went ahead with plans to force mobile-phone companies and internet-service providers to keep these records, at a cost to the taxpayer of £2 billion.

I watch a lot of British mysteries and the other night happened to be watching an older one. I kept wondering why they didn't just use the CCTV surveillance to solve the crime, but it was just old enough that they wouldn't have had systematic coverage yet. Made you wonder why we didn't start surveilling earlier.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 2, 2009 5:23 PM
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