It must be '1984': 'Big Brother' snoops and Britons don't mind

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 5, 2008 

LONDON — In an era when security is the top concern for officials in many countries — reinforced by November's deadly attacks in Mumbai — it takes a lot to be labeled "the most surveilled democracy in the world." In the case of Britain, the label is not necessarily meant as a compliment. Some — including the European Court of Human Rights — fear that the snooping has run amok.

Video cameras are ubiquitous. An average Londoner is captured on video hundreds of times a day as he walks the streets, rides the "Tube," visits the bank or drives a car.

Including private cameras in shops and banks, there may now be more than 10 million video cameras operating in a country with a population of about 60 million, according to David Murakami-Wood, a specialist on surveillance issues at Newcastle University. This is more than double the number earlier this decade.

He argues that the supposed benefits of Britain's vast surveillance network don't justify the growing costs and infringement on freedom.

"Britain is regarded as the society to avoid" for its pervasive surveillance and disregard for personal privacy, said Colin Bennett, a British-born author and academic at the University of Vancouver in Canada. He contends the surveillance culture is "out of control," targeting not just suspected terrorists and criminals but millions of ordinary people.

Yet a visit to Compton Square in Islington, the north London neighborhood where the author George Orwell wrote his novel "1984" six decades ago about an omnipresent "Big Brother," suggests that many Britons grudgingly accept having their movements watched closely. They cite the string of bombings that hit London as recently as July 2005.

"Most people ignore it" when new surveillance cameras go up in their neighborhoods, said Fabien Cox, a 48-year-old consultant to the international water industry. Holding a pint of beer as he stood at the bar of Orwell's favorite pub, the centuries-old Compton Arms, Cox admitted he was more accepting since a double-decker bus traveling his normal route to work was blown up during the 2005 attacks.

Trevor Lloyd, a 32-year-old broadcast engineer who lives in the area, got seven traffic tickets — each about $90 — within a week of moving to London after being caught on surveillance camera parking just inside the city's restricted "congestion charge" zone. "You become criminalized yourself quite easily, and there's no right of appeal," Lloyd said.

Lloyd added, however: "The flip side is the terrorist thing." Given security threats, he found the video cameras around the city "reassuring." And he's not greatly disturbed by a new plan for everyone in Britain to carry a government-issued biometric identity card, which will include dozens of pieces of personal information, including fingerprints. They will be "expensive" and "a bother," he said.

The acquiescence of ordinary Britons troubles civil liberties advocates.

"It's remarkable that there is no general protest" over widespread surveillance, said Simon Davies, a director with the advocacy group Privacy International.

Many of Britain's neighbors in continental Europe consider Britain heavy-handed in its use of surveillance tools. When even the "most law-and-order mayor in France" visits Britain, "they feel like it's a horror film," said Sebastian Roche, a political scientist at the University of Grenoble in France.

Yet police and public officials in other countries are studying Britain's surveillance techniques as they grapple with their own security threats. Teams of U.S. officials arrived in London shortly after the September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington to learn how police were using cameras, which were initially installed in the 1990s to combat threats including child molesters and bombings by the Irish Republican Army.

Studies in the U.S. and Britain suggest the cameras are a limited deterrent in combating crime and terrorism. They appear to reduce crime when installed in confined spaces, such as parking garages, but are much less effective on open streets and plazas. Experts in surveillance suggest that the boom in camera use is partly driven by an aggressive private sector that pushes technology as the solution to social problems, and the insistence of insurance companies that businesses have cameras in place.

Cameras, however, are just the beginning of the surveillance drive. Having begun to issue national identity cards, the Labor government has also proposed a new law giving police the power to arrest anyone who can't produce identity papers on demand.

If you're in a big crowd in Britain, look up. British authorities now use miniature, unmanned "drones" carrying aerial cameras to watch crowds at large events.

A proposed national telecommunications bill allowing the government to monitor all electronic communications has been delayed due to protests from opposition politicians, but many experts predict it will ultimately be passed.

The latest big controversy centers on the database of DNA samples collected from anyone arrested by police. Murakami-Wood said there is "very little control" over the database, which includes a disproportionate number of black men and even children as young as 12, he said. The European Court of Human Rights, based in Strasbourg, France, agrees. It ruled unanimously Thursday that the database violates the right of privacy. According to the ruling, more than 1 million samples of people found innocent, among the 4.6 million in the total database, must be destroyed.

The database "overstepped any acceptable margin of appreciation" in the balance between individual rights and the public interest, the court said.

National politicians are furious that police surveilled and then earlier this month arrested one of their own, Damien Green, a "shadow" minister responsible for immigration matters in the opposition Conservative party. Counterterrorism officers searched his home and parliamentary office and seized his computer and mobile phone, claiming he'd leaked sensitive government information to the public. On Wednesday, the speaker in the House of Commons revealed the police didn't have a warrant for their search.

"This is disturbing at least and distressing at best," said Davies of Privacy International. "All the warnings were laid bare to the population in a way that will resonate for many years to come. The police simply have too much power and too much discretion."

Civil-liberties activists say one reason for the burgeoning surveillance is the relative lack of legal protections for data. While Britain subscribes to the European Convention on Human Rights, it lacks the sort of constitutional protection of privacy that exists in the U.S. or Germany. Large numbers of Germans have taken to the streets in recent months to voice concerns about erosion of their personal privacy, yet "Britain never gave privacy a chance," Bennett said.

One hazard of collecting so much data is that it can easily fall into the wrong hands. Public officials and contracting firms have lost classified files for thousands of people over the past year, heightening the fears that the government cannot be trusted with the information it gathers.

Is Britain becoming Orwell's "1984"? Murakami-Wood said that in the context of a bumbling bureaucracy, the analogy shouldn't be taken too far. "This is not Big Brother," he said. "It's a lot of incompetent little brothers." Sadly, he added, "none of these measures will stop anyone who's determined to do something really bad."

(Sell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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