Thursday, November 02, 2006

The snooping state

Too late to halt Big Brother?

I wonder, if like me, you have ever considered how many cctv cameras there are looking at you as you go about your daily business in South Tyneside. Hundreds you might think, the true figure will actually be in the thousands. Just walk about any shopping area, be it Jarrow, Hebburn, or South Shields, and cast your eyes upwards to street lamp level, virtually every street will have a cctv camera, perhaps two or more. Walk into any shop these days and cast your eyes towards ceiling level and amuse yourself by counting how many miniature cctv cameras are watching over you. Banks and building societies bristle with them, pubs are positively populated with them, factories and carparks too, even hospitals and doctor's surgeries are not immune from the creeping snoopers.

Surveillance systems installed to fight crime and terrorism track us as we go about our lives. Britain is becoming a "Big Brother" surveillance society with millions of people being tracked throughout their lives, according to a report published today.

Shopping habits, travel movements and car and train journeys are being monitored increasingly as part of the fabric of daily life. The report gives warning that funding from the War on Terror is being used to explore the opportunity of connecting data-gathering systems to track "the movements and behaviour" of millions of people.

But Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, warned that excessive surveillance was creating a climate of suspicion.

"Today I fear that we are, in fact, waking up to a surveillance society that is already all around us, as ever more information is collected, shared and used, it intrudes into our private space and leads to decisions that directly influence people’s lives. Mistakes can also easily be made with serious consequences — false matches and other cases of mistaken identity, inaccurate facts or inferences, suspicions taken as reality and breaches of security."

David Murakami Wood, from the Surveillance Studies Network, which prepared the report, said:

"Surveillance is not a malign plot hatched by evil powers to control the population. But the surveillance society has come about almost without us realising. With technologies that are large scale, taken for granted and often invisible, surveillance is increasingly everywhere."

With an estimated 4.2 million closed-circuit televisions in Britain - one for every 14 people - a person can be captured on more than 300 cameras each day.

Surveillance ranges from US security agencies monitoring telecommunications traffic passing through Britain, to key stroke information used to gauge work rates and GPS information tracking company vehicles, the Report on the Surveillance Society says. It predicts that by 2016 shoppers could be scanned as they enter stores, schools could bring in cards allowing parents to monitor what their children eat, and jobs may be refused to applicants who are seen as a health risk.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usThis graphic from today's Times illustrates the types of surveillance we will be subject to in the near future. Blair's 'Big Brother' database is already under construction, the next central census will even ask us to declare our earnings (as if the Inland Revenue were not already aware) we have the largest DNA database in the world, and it includes material from thousands of people who never committed a crime in their life, more worrying is the build up of DNA being collected from children or young people who come into contact with the police, but again are never charged with any crimes. The amount of data collated about us is extremely worrying, and we have yet to reach the point where more is centrally located with the threatened intoduction of ID cards!

There are many, of course, who would say 'why worry about it if you are not a criminal, it's all designed to keep us safe and help the police, isn't it?'

Consider what might happen if any of this information got into the wrong hands, consider what might happen if any of these databases were criminally compromised, think about the consequences of wrong decisions that could be taken through sloppy security or poor intelligence analysis! Sometimes it just doesn't bear thinking about.

Last year we saw the case of a father investigated by social services after his young daughter said he had 'bonked' her - it turned out he had hit her on the head with an inflatable hammer. While social services had closed the file, police and health authority records were not updated and said the man had been suspected of child abuse.

Mr. Thomas said:

"If somebody wrongly is associated with a criminal record their career can be seriously damaged, if someone is wrongly associated with other sorts of behaviour then their families or relationships could be put at risk."

Also last year the Criminal Records' Bureau mistakenly labelled thousands of people as criminals.

Curly wonders why we have had to become so dependent on the 'snooping' hardware and databases of the Big Brother state. Is it because we have become so self centred in Blair's Britain that we are less neighbourly, less able to look out for each other, and are quite happy to allow others (with their cctv cameras) to do it for us? Is it because there are so many amongst us that, when the police turn up to investigate a crime in our street, see nothing and hear nothing? Is it because, like the parabal of the Good Samaritan, so many are prepared to walk by on the other side?

Good people of South Tyneside, it is time to wake up! Get a grip! Tell this government, and anyone else who wants to pry into our lives, to get lost! They have enough information on most of us to write a book of biblical proportions, and I believe that whilst some surveilance has been propitious and usefull, too much of it will lead to a tyrannical oppression!

Curly welcomes your thoughts.


The Times Online
BBC News
BBC News

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