Friday, October 10, 2008

Over-the-top (or under-the-foliage) surveillance leads to backlash in the UK

The ridiculous degree of surveillance in the UK, supported by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, is finally leading to a significant backlash as surveillance powers are being used to catch people who don't scoop their poop. Thanks to Rob Hyndman for the link.

Orwellian U.K. Angers People With Tree Cameras, Snooping Kids

By Caroline Alexander and Howard Mustoe

Oct. 10 (Bloomberg) -- Hidden in foliage next to a path in the southeast England seaside town of Hastings are digital cameras. Their target: litterbugs and dog walkers.

The electronic eyes feed images to a monitoring unit, where they're scanned and stored as evidence to prosecute people who discard garbage or fail to clean up after pets, a spokeswoman for the town council said.

``It's becoming a bit Big Brother-like,'' said Sandra Roberts, 50, a Hastings kiosk manager, invoking George Orwell's 1949 book ``Nineteen Eighty-Four,'' about a Britain where authorities pry into all aspects of citizens' lives.

Local authorities are adopting phone-record logging, e-mail taps and camera surveillance to police such offenses as welfare fraud, unlawful dumping of waste and sick-day fakery. Telecommunications companies are about to join the list of crime monitors. Already, 4.5 million closed-circuit cameras watch public places across Britain, or about 1 camera for every 15 people, the highest ratio in the world.

``There's too much of it now, all this spying,'' said Ivor Quittention, 80, a retired owner of three hardware stores who lives in Hastings. The town's spokeswoman, who declined to be identified, said spying is the most effective way of dealing with something residents complain about most.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, dubbed ``the snoopers charter'' by London-based civil-rights group Liberty, was passed by the ruling Labour Party in 2000 to legislate methods of surveillance and information gathering. The purpose of the law, known also as Ripa, was to help prevent crime, including terrorism, according to the Home Office.

`Too Much Power'

Initially, only security and intelligence services could invoke the Act's provisions. In 2003, Parliament extended powers to the 474 local councils in England, Scotland and Wales, as well as to 318 other state bodies, including 11 Royal Parks, the Post Office and Chief Inspector of Schools.

Since then, local authorities have been expanding their use of the provisions to dozens of lesser offenses.

The law has loopholes and councils like Hastings aren't doing anything wrong when they invoke it for minor crimes, according to Gus Hosein, a professor from the London School of Economics specializing in technology and privacy.

``Ripa just gives too much power to any Tom, Dick or Harry related to government,'' he said.

The latest proposed expansion of the Act requires telecommunications providers to store the text of all e-mails and details of all phone calls transmitted over their lines.

The government is seeking the views of the public on the proposal until Oct. 31. The bill will then go to Parliament for consideration.

`Sleep-Walking'

Of the 163 U.K. councils that replied to calls and Freedom of Information requests from Bloomberg, 95 percent said they use Ripa. Nine said they don't, including Barnet, Basingstoke and Deane, Broadland, Halton, Harrogate, Shepway, West Devon, Slough and the Shetlands, a group of islands off Scotland where sheep outnumber people. Three declined to provide details without payment of an administrative fee.

East Hampshire, in south England, applied the law to catch vandals defacing tombstones. Derby, in northern England, invoked it to send children with recording gear into shops to see if they'd unlawfully be sold cigarettes and alcohol.

``It's unreal,'' said Dean Price, 24, a graphic designer in London. ``We've been sleep-walking into this. Everyone talks about Orwell and 1984 but no one ever does anything about it.''

A spokesman for the Home Office, which oversees Ripa, said the extension is vital to intelligence gathering and will help investigators identify suspects, track them and examine their contacts. He declined to be identified, in line with policy.

Petty Offenses

The Association of Local Government, which represents councils, said through a statement by outgoing Chairman Simon Milton that the ``crime-busting powers'' are an essential tool in gathering evidence needed to stop criminal activity.

At the same time, Milton said he wrote to all councils in June asking them not to invoke the law for petty offenses.

``It's ironic that a nation that was once a bastion of privacy, one in which `an Englishman's home is his castle' and that did away with National ID Cards in 1952, is now one of the most surveilled in the world,'' said Toby Stevens, founder of London's Enterprise Privacy Group.

The opposition Conservative Party is against Ripa in its current form and will amend it if it wins the next election, due by 2010, home affairs spokesman Dominic Grieve said.

Mark Jewell, a councilman for the U.K.'s third party, the Liberal Democrats, said more checks and balances are needed to ensure Ripa isn't abused. ``At the moment, you don't need to have done anything wrong to get snooped on,'' he said. No other European Union government has similar regulations.

`Hugely Disproportionate'

Among councils which responded to Bloomberg's questions, those in northern England, Wales and Scotland used the law more than those in the south. Durham, in northeast England, was the biggest user, invoking the provisions 144 times in the past year, as authorities cracked down on offenses including fraud.

In April, council workers spent two weeks tailing a couple in Poole, southeast England, they wrongly suspected were planning to send their daughter to a school outside their designated area. Tim Joyce and Jenny Paton called the intrusion into their lives ``hugely disproportionate.''

In August, Paul Griffiths was taken to court and fined 1,000 pounds for allowing his dog to foul grass outside his home in Bristol. Griffiths said he's innocent and his pet had only been urinating when she was spotted on camera.

Brian Clements, a 79-year-old retired teacher from Clacton- on-Sea, south England, said the measures are ``like using a sledge hammer to crack a nut.''

``Wouldn't the Gestapo have loved all those little cameras,'' he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Caroline Alexander in London at calexander1@bloomberg.net.

Last Updated: October 9, 2008 19:01 EDT

1 comment:

David Canton said...

Its no wonder tomorrow is billed as a day of protest against surveillance in the EU. http://canton.elegal.ca/2008/10/10/saturday-oct-11-is-international-day-of-protest-against-surveillance/