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.
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."
"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.
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."