Britain is a country rightly known around the world as a cradle of liberty and freedom. But most people now feel that our freedoms are being eroded.
This is hardly surprising, given the recent discovery that the police have a series of databases recording the personal details of thousands of people who attend protests or rallies. The databases are searchable by a number of officers and come complete with colour photographs assembled and printed onto “spotter cards” which are then distributed to enable agencies to monitor attendees at events.
The CCTV point is worth dwelling on for a moment since we’ve gone further down this path than any other country. Technology certainly has a part to play in law enforcement, but there needs to be a balance struck Cameras are often turned off or not working, as happened in an unpleasant beating in Somerset, or the recent case in Delhi (where all 27 cameras supposedly watching the site in question were non-functioning) - which is much worse than them simply not being there, as law enforcement becomes dependent on an unreliable resource. The quality of footage is often such that courts cannot use it.
Research indicates that crime is not driven down by the presence of CCTV as confirmed by London’s Metropolitan Police report this year, which stated that one crime per year was solved per thousand cameras. And yet we continue to put ever more money, and ever more trust, in the cameras. Given that the public purse offers finite resources, the options we choose for law enforcement are mutually exclusive - money spent in this way is money that cannot be spent on other forms of policing, such as officers on the street.
There are also obvious privacy issues which usually go ignored, but shouldn’t. And not just with the permanently retained images of innocent people either. 86% of people think that the government can’t be trusted to keep our personal information safe – a fair conclusion, one might think, after the loss of (for example) the Child Benefit Database by Revenue & Customs at the end of 2007.
82% of people disagreed that placing microchips in refuse bins to monitor the waste thrown away by households was an acceptable measure to encourage recycling – despite 42 local authorities currently monitoring the habits of over 2 million households up and down the country.
People think that the ID cards issue has gone away, but it really hasn’t. First, the more important thing is the database behind the card, which hasn’t gone away. But furthermore, the cards themselves are still with us; they’re just arriving in a more piecemeal way than originally planned. Immigrants are already receiving cards when they come here. The Identity Card Act 2006 provides for the indefinite retention of information about holders - specifically, the date and time that they were used, with whom you used it and what the transaction was – seeing your GP, say, or (as they become more commonplace) what you got at the shops. That’s not science fiction, it’s the law in this country today and the only thing stopping such massive accumulation is technology lag in the places in which cards might be used, rather than any ethical qualm.
Regardless of what we want or try to do about it, we continue to be the victims of ever more intrusive policies, with the Government pushing more and more into the details of our lives. Our masters don’t seem to care that Big Brother Britain has been rejected by the vast majority of people who live here. They continue to pursue expensive and invasive surveillance methods that serve only to create “criminals” out of otherwise law-abiding people.
Alex Deane is Director of Big Brother Watch. He was David Cameron's first chief of staff.