Big Brother is constantly watching

In todays Britain,

Big Brother is constantly watching

It has become commonplace to call Britain a ‘surveillance society,’ a place where security cameras lurk at every corner, giant databases keep track of intimate personal details and the government has extraordinary powers to intrude into citizens’ lives.

A report in 2007 by the lobbying group Privacy International placed Britain in the bottom five countries for its record on privacy and surveillance, on a par with Singapore.

But the intrusions visited on Jenny Paton, a 40-year-old mother of three, were startling just the same.
Suspecting Paton of falsifying her address to get her daughter into the neighbourhood school, local officials here began a covert surveillance operation. They obtained her telephone billing records. And for more than three weeks in 2008, an officer from the Poole education department secretly followed her around, noting on a secret-agent-style log the movements of the ‘female and three children’ and the ‘target vehicle’.

It turned out that Paton had broken no rules. Her daughter was admitted to the school. But she has not let the matter rest. Her case, now scheduled to be heard by a regulatory tribunal, has become emblematic of the struggle between personal privacy and the ever more powerful state here.
The Poole Borough Council, which governs the area of Dorset where Paton lives with her partner, Tim Joyce, and their children, says it has done nothing wrong.

In a way, that is true: Under a law enacted in 2000 to regulate surveillance powers, it is legal for localities to follow residents secretly. Local governments regularly use these surveillance powers to investigate malfeasance like illegally dumping industrial waste, loan sharking and falsely claiming welfare benefits.

Various purposes

But they also use them to investigate reports of noise pollution and people who do not clean up their dogs’ waste. Local governments use them to catch people who fail to recycle, people who put their trash out too early, people who sell fireworks without licenses, people whose dogs bark too loudly and people who illegally operate taxicabs.

“Does our privacy mean anything?” Paton said. “I haven’t had a drink for 20 years, but there is nothing that has brought me closer to drinking than this case.”

The law in question is known as the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, or RIPA, and it also gives 474 local governments and 318 agencies powers once held by only a handful of law enforcement and security service organisations.

Under the law, the localities and agencies can film people with hidden cameras, trawl through communication traffic data like telephone calls and website visits and enlist undercover ‘agents’ to pose, for example, as teenagers who want to buy alcohol.

In a report this summer, Christopher Rose, the chief surveillance commissioner, said that local governments conducted nearly 5,000 ‘directed surveillance missions’ in the year ending in March and that other public authorities carried out roughly the same amount.

Local officials say that using covert surveillance is justified. The Poole Borough Council, for example, used it to detect and prosecute illegal fishing in Poole Harbour. “RIPA is an essential tool for local authority enforcement which we make limited use of in cases where it is proportionate and there are no other means of gathering evidence,” Tim Martin, who is in charge of legal and democratic services for Poole, said.

The fuss over the law comes against a backdrop of widespread public worry about an increasingly intrusive state and the growing circulation of personal details in vast databases compiled by the government and private companies.

“Successive UK governments have gradually constructed one of the most extensive and technologically advanced surveillance systems in the world,” the House of Lords Constitution Committee said in a recent report. It continued: “The development of electronic surveillance and the collection and processing of personal information have become pervasive, routine and almost taken for granted.”

Public discontent

RIPA is a complicated law that also regulates wiretapping and intrusive surveillance carried out by the security services. But faced with rumbles of public discontent about local governments’ behaviour, the Home Office announced in the spring that it would review the legislation to make it clearer what localities should be allowed to do.

“The government has absolutely no interest in spying on law-abiding people going about their everyday lives,” said Jacqui Smith, then the home secretary.

One of the biggest criticisms of the law is that the targets of surveillance are usually unaware that they have been spied on.

Indeed, Paton learned what had happened only later, when officials summoned her to discuss her daughter’s school application. To her shock, they produced the covert surveillance report and the family’s telephone billing records.
“As far as I’m concerned, they’re within their rights to scrutinise all applications, but the way they went about it was totally unwarranted,” Paton said. “If they’d wanted any information, they could have come and asked.”

She would have explained that her case was complicated. The family was in the process of moving from their old house, which was within the school district, to a new one just outside it. But they met the residency requirements because they were still living at the old address when school applications closed.
At the meeting, Paton and her partner, Joyce, pointed out that the surveillance evidence was irrelevant because the surveillance had been carried out after the deadline had passed.

The case is now before the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, which looks into complaints about RIPA. It usually meets in secret but has agreed, Paton said, to have an open hearing at the beginning of November.

The whole process is so shrouded in mystery that few people ever take it this far. “Because no one knows you have a right to know you’re under surveillance,” Paton said, “nobody ever makes a complaint.”

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