Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Spy cameras: We are paranoid, but they're still out to get us


People's outrage at wrongdoers being spied on is just a symptom of our impotence in the face of bureaucracy

Alice Miles

My instinctive reaction on hearing that councils have been secretly spying on people who do not clear up after their dogs was: good. We should have zero tolerance for dog poo. In fact, we shouldn't just film, fine and publicly embarrass owners who leave the stuff lying around for other people to tread in, we should shove their faces in it, make them eat it if necessary.

I feel slightly less strongly about those who drop litter, but see no real objection to councils filming them to achieve prosecution. The same goes for people who abuse the school admissions system: why should they get away with it and deprive the children of less dishonest parents of a place at a decent school?

Comments have been pouring in to public forums such as BBC online, suggesting that I am at odds with most of the public on this. “Since when has it been policy to turn local authorities who are paid to do specific local tasks, into Stasi-style snoopers?” a fairly typical one reads. “This is ridiculous in the extreme and feeds directly into the type of narrow-minded thinking that is killing this country stone dead.”

Or another: “Perhaps I am naive to think that the cameras were there for protection, but they are really there to ensure that the council can spy on me watching my every move, collect evidence on me if a piece of paper falls from my person. 1984 may be fiction, but now we are living the reality.”

I hesitate to suggest it - the libertarians are vocal and can be aggressive - but I think that there is a confusion of ideas here. It isn't the identification and prosecution of dog foulers, litterers or lying parents, all of them behaving anti-socially in different ways, that has upset most people. And it isn't just the surveillance; rightly or wrongly, we have learnt to live with CCTV and other cameras.

It is the covert surveillance that has got everybody's goat. And the reason that covert surveillance annoys people is that we have become paranoid. We assume that Britain is filled with petty, vindictive bureaucrats with hidden powers over our lives, who are “out to get us”.

There is a coalescence of outrage around rubbish spies and bin taxes, around distant bureaucracy and speed cameras and parking fines; around the myriad ways that the State can intrude upon one's life without warning and force you to pay to make it go away again. And never be forced to explain itself.

This paranoia is understandable. The State doesn't answer the phone to you but it does have the power to threaten and bully you, to make you pay or to threaten your credit rating with a county court judgment - even though, if it would only listen to you, you are being perfectly reasonable.

These threats also extend to private companies that send unfair or mistaken demands for payment and then deal with your objection in the same blank way: by refusing to answer your call and sending repeated threatening letters instead.

Few things infuriate the ordinary, reasonable person more than getting trapped in bureaucratic nightmares such as these. It is made worse by knowing that it will have taken a person or computer programme just two minutes to send out the letter, but will take hours and hours of work for you to undo it. And without even an apology from anybody afterwards.

How better to embody the impotence of the ordinary person against this vast, powerful and increasingly hidden bureaucracy than in the idea that they might be secretly filming you to trap you?

This is the growing frustration that David Davis could pick up on if he were a stronger campaigner. (Remember his disastrous campaign to be Conservative leader?) Having resigned as Shadow Home Secretary over the proposal to lock up terrorist suspects for 42 days without charging them - an issue with which he is at odds with public opinion - Mr Davis has so far failed to ignite a debate on the broader question of liberty. By which I mean, not 42 days - important though that is - but the liberty of the ordinary person to have an ordinary life and not to feel oppressed; the everyday small liberties that affect us all. My freedom not to be harassed by the council or the television licensing authorities. Your freedom not to be harassed by a traffic warden, or BT or a mechanical and idiotic call-answering system.

Or Boris Johnson's freedom not to wear a cycling helmet without attracting opprobrium, and not to be harassed by the police at the behest of his political opponents - two things that the Mayor of London has complained about in recent columns in The Daily Telegraph. Mr Johnson is shaping up to be a far better embodiment of the fight against petty authoritarianism than Mr Davis.

We may need that fight. When the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (Ripa), the law that enables councils to authorise surveillance and to get hold of your phone records, e-mail traffic and website usage, was passed eight years ago, nine organisations, including the police, security and Revenue services, were allowed to use it.

There are now no fewer than 786 more, including all local authorities, police forces and bodies such as the Financial Services Authority and Ambulance Service. In 2006 they made more than 1,000 applications a day to use the powers.

Meanwhile I read this week of a man in Gloucester, Rob McCaffrey, who has given up his life-long hobby of bus-spotting after being repeatedly harassed by the public, bus drivers and the police for taking photographs. The 50-year-old credit controller and omnibologist says that he now suffers appalling abuse and has been accused of being a terrorist and a paedophile. He has been asked to show his photographs to the police, and had to watch a community support officer run his name through the police database. He says that the past two years - two years in which the number of investigations under Ripa has soared along with the political rhetoric of terror - have been the worst. Distrust breeds distrust.

The country is becoming paranoid. Which is why, in the end, if I have to choose one side or the other, I will stand with the libertarians. Even though I do not object to snooping on school cheats. Even though I think it right to fine people who refuse to recycle their rubbish. Even though I believe that cameras and “bin-bugs” can have their place in a decent society.

Yes, in the end, if I have to choose, I will stand with the libertarians.

Even though I am standing in dog poo.

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