In the last month, the government and big businesses have launched a dizzying array of initiatives threatening the expansion of a creeping “surveillance society” – which has lead to two young people being arrested.
The most sweeping proposal is the government’s scheme to store every phone call, sent email, and web page visited over the previous year by British citizens in a giant database. Jonathan Bamford, of the government’s own privacy watchdog the Information Commissioner’s Office, criticised the initiative: “We have warned before that we are sleepwalking into a surveillance society. We have real doubts that such a measure can be justified, or is proportionate or desirable.”
Telecom companies have been obliged to retain records of text messages and phone calls for 12 months since last October. Internet service provider BT is in talks with US technology company Phorm, to introduce software that will track its three million users’ web behaviour to sell to advertisers.
Local councils are also abusing their powers. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) was passed in 2000 so official bodies could track serious criminals and terrorists. More than 1,000 RIPA spying operations are thought to be launched each month for offences like dog-fouling and underage smoking.
Poole council has launched RIPA surveillance operations against a family to see if it was really in the claimed school catchment area, and against fishermen suspected of collecting shellfish from a prohibited area of Poole harbour.
Local councils operate many of Britain’s four million CCTV cameras. Britain is the most watched nation in the world – to little effect according to Metropolitan detective chief inspector Mick Neville, who said on 6 May: “It’s been an utter fiasco: only 3% of crimes [in London] were solved by CCTV.”
The shadow home secretary, David Davies, said: “There is no argument for having CCTV which both infringes on our civil liberty but is of such poor quality it does nothing to protect us or provide evidence to bring perpetrators of crime to justice – as happens now.”
In May, a CameraWatch survey of 60 schools using CCTV found they were breaching the Data Protection Act – and acting criminally – by failing to warn people of the presence of the cameras.
Schools are also increasingly fingerprinting their students – without parents’ permission – for meal payment or use of the library. A mother told the Keighley News at the beginning of May: “I don’t want my son’s print on any database. I’m annoyed that [Long Lee Primary School, Yorkshire] has gone ahead and done this and not asked my permission.”
Big business is also getting in on the act. Supermarket chain Budgens is introducing face-recognition technology to capture images of underage customers who are refused cigarettes or alcohol – to be stored on a national database.
Children are also being photographed by by police after being stopped and searched – even after they have been found innocent – to be stored on yet another database.
Big Brother doesn’t just watch; he acts. A 15-year-old protestor had his placard seized and a summons served on him by the City of London police on 10 May, after he refused to remove his sign, which read: “Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult.”
More seriously, Nottingham student, Rizwaan Sabir, was arrested on 14 May and held for six days under the Terrorism Act for researching an al-Qa’eda training manual which he had downloaded from a US government website.