UK bugging case: too much Big Brother?
An outcry arises despite already heavy use of surveillance. Wednesday, Prime Minister Brown announced plans to admit some wiretap material in court.
Britain's love-hate relationship with surveillance has taken a new twist with the news that a member of Parliament was bugged while visiting a constituent in prison – a breach of rules that privacy advocates say is symptomatic of a cavalier free-for-all in one of the world's most closely watched societies.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The outcry involving Sadiq Khan, whose conversations with a man facing extradition to the United States on terrorism charges were secretly recorded, has generated alarm that individual rights are increasingly becoming subordinated to national security. That debate swirled around the British Parliament again Wednesday, when Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced plans to allow some wiretap material to be used in court to boost the prosecution cases against suspected terrorists.
But even Mr. Brown admitted that there was a fine line to tread between national security and private freedoms. "The use of intercept evidence characterizes a central dilemma that we face as a free society – that of preserving our liberties and the rule of law, while at the same time keeping our nation safe and secure," Brown told Parliament.
It is ironic that Britain has, for so long, bucked the international norm of using wiretap evidence in court, given its growing reputation as the "big brother" of the democratic world. Bugging and telephone wiretaps can be set up without recourse to a judge – unlike the vast majority of European democracies and the US. The home secretary authorized more than 3,500 spy operations in 2005 and 2006.
More than 600 public bodies can now seek covert access to the communications records of any private individuals, and do so at a rate of around 1,000 requests daily. There are more than 4 million closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras – one for every 14 people – and a London commuter can expect to be recorded more than 300 times a day.
Britain also has the world's largest (per capita) police DNA database, with more than 4.5 million samples, not all of them from the guilty. Not surprising, a collective shudder ripples whenever careless government clerks mislay private data, a blunder that appears to be happening more often.
"Britain has the most CCTV cameras and the largest DNA database per capita in the Western world, yet our data protection laws have not been updated in 10 years and the Information Commissioner lacks the resources to effectively protect our privacy from government intrusion," says Gareth Crossman, director of policy at the human rights group Liberty. "The argument of 'nothing to hide, nothing to fear' rings hollow now that the government has lost literally millions of people's personal data in the last few months. If we don't pause for thought now, our children will grow up without any sense of the value of privacy."
Information commissioner Richard Thomas has repeatedly warned that Britain is becoming a "surveillance society." In Parliament Wednesday, opposition MP Nick Clegg accused Brown of making the British public the "most spied upon on the planet."