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.
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"It's impossible to guarantee that you will retain any individual privacy, because under the current arrangements, everybody is likely to be swept up into the surveillance bucket," says Simon Davies, director of Privacy International (PI), a privacy watchdog.Skip to next paragraph
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In PI's latest international rankings, Britain ranks worst in Europe for privacy and only just slightly ahead of China and Russia. "Britain fares badly because its surveillance is entrenched," says Mr. Davies. "It's not bolted on; it's deeply ingrained."
Lawyers, meanwhile, are anxious that suspects in pretrial detention are routinely bugged by police, violating their right to seek confidential advice. Simon Creighton, a lawyer who says his conversations with a client were bugged, told the BBC: "It is a very, very basic principle of English law that people are entitled to seek confidential legal advice."
Yet not everyone is unhappy about the Orwellian technology amassing data on Britain's 60 million people. While few profess a love of speed cameras and the idea of a national road tracking system to levy tolls, surveys depict a public far more at ease with CCTV. Attitudes on ID cards, tentatively scheduled to be introduced in 2012, tend to be polarized, with a small but growing minority implacably opposed.
Security experts, meanwhile, defend wiretapping as an essential part of intelligence work, one that has unravelled more than one terrorist plot.
"It's a very important tool," says Peter Neumann, a security expert at King's College London. The fact that wiretaps can be set up without judicial oversight "means that British intelligence can do things that other countries aren't capable of doing," he says. "It's worked quite well in this country – the tradition comes from the Northern Ireland experience when bugging was widespread and very useful."
Indeed, one of the best pieces of intelligence gleaned in Northern Ireland involved not so much the Irish Republican Army's plans for violence but their thoughts of peace. "The British government realized the IRA was seriously interested in striking peace deals not because of what they said publicly but because of what they got from bugged telephone conversations," says Mr. Neumann. "That gave the government the confidence to start the process that led to a peace agreement."
But security services have been loath to hand over transcripts and bugging material to the courts for use in prosecution cases. Quite apart from the bureaucracy that this will entail, they say that doing so will expose their methods and technologies.
But Brown signaled Wednesday that intelligence officers may have to overcome that concern, though he added that security services would be given control over how their material was used in court. "Their fears are overstated," says Neumann. "Every intelligence service in the world has to deal with this. I think it will come."