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 Privacy 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.