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Monday, October 26, 2009

“They said my privacy wasn’t intruded on because the surveillance was covert…”

The quote above, with its absurdist overtones, appeared in a recent article in the Daily Mail, the British tabloid. It is the plaint of a mother who came under the attention of authorities for daring to keep her child enrolled in a school even though she had moved outside the district. In fact, she had complied with residency requirements by staying in her old residence, which was in the district, until the date required for enrollment, but it is the use of such surveillance powers by the state – examining three years worth of phone records and secretly following her for weeks -- to investigate the relatively benign “crime” that is the issue here.
Such is life in what has become one of the most spied on populations in the world, the English. The New York Times also did a recent story on the couple, Jenny Paton and her partner, Tim Joyce, a computer programmer. Their daughter was finally admitted to the school. But the authorities in the borough of Poole, town of Dorchester, insist that they were acting within the law. In fact, they probably were.

“I drove up the Old Kent Road the other day. I counted 13 traffic cameras in less than a mile.”

In England, the birthplace of so many Western liberties, privacy is under attack. A law enacted in 2000, with terrorist threats in mind, allows local governments to utilize surveillance powers with no oversight from the courts. As a result, utilizing such self-authorization, communities have been employing powers intended to stop suicide bomb plots on welfare cheats, loan delinquents, litterers and even those who dogs are suspected of fouling the public gardens.

Public ignorance is one reason that the law has been abused with such ease. When surveillance is covert, it raises questions like those posed in the United States shortly after the Bush administration assured the public that it had never used some of the controversial powers provided to it by the Patriot Act: that’s nice, some said, mockingly, but how would we know if you did anyway? Still, indifference to the law itself has also been a factor. “I did not know the council had the power to put people under surveillance,” said Tim Joyce of his family’s ordeal. “As far as I was concerned that was something only the Home Secretary could approve.”

A study by Pr
ivacy International in 2007 affirmed that among Western democracies the United Kingdom is the worst abuser of privacy in the world. Among all countries, only Malaysia and China scored lower. Lest any of you American chauvinists be taking comfort, the United States scored disturbingly low as well (more on that in a future post). The map below, color-coded with black as the worst abusers of privacy and green as the least, tells the story.

Technology, of course, is one driver of this issue. Closed-circuit television or CCTV has been employed as a law enforcement tool in England for some time. There are millions of such cameras recording activity in city centers. When first installed, CCTV provided a crude image assisting police in prosecuting little more than traffic infractions. But over time these devices have developed far better resolution and the ability to recognize facial characteristics. When combined now with the relatively new UK identity card system, it is only a matter of time before facial identities will be cross-referenced allowing the movements of specific people to be monitored relatively easily. There are now over 4 million cameras in the UK, or one for every 14 people. (By contrast, there are 6.5 million in the rest of Europe).

"You don't use a sledgehammer to crack a nut, nor targeted surveillance to stop a litter bug.”

That’s the objection of Shami Chakrabarti, a UK privacy advocate who runs a group called Liberty. He is speaking about the law that allowed Poole to eavesdrop on Jenny Paton, and while there is no doubt that the surveillance technologies now endemic throughout England have led to more, and more reliable, arrests in serious crimes there is also no doubt that when such sweeping powers are given to law enforcement authorities their abuse is likely to follow.

Now, just think of what awaits England (and, other surveillance-friendly countries): A British company recently developed The Bug, a CCTV technique involving eight cameras that can scan in a multitude of directions. You can read about it on the company’s website here. The Bug uses unique software to detect suspicious conduct. Once any of fifty acts is noted – for instance, running wildly or darting in and around buildings – the cameras are programmed to zero in on that person and follow them indefinitely. The Bug, which has already been installed in several English cities, may mistake a window-shopper for a loiterer, admits a company spokesman, “but on every occasion that a crime has been committed the system has always caught evidence.” Indeed, the company markets The Bug with the phrase “intelligent cameras never sleep.”


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