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Privacy And Surveillance - Council Spies On Family

Mal Fletcher
Posted 15 April 2008
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Last week, a minor furore erupted in the UK's media, when a borough council in Dorset admitted to spying for two and a half weeks on a family within their region.

The council's representatives were trying, they said, to ascertain whether the family were telling the truth about the school catchment area in which they claimed to live.

In the UK, as in other parts of the world, school places - especially in more desirable schools - are allocated according to a predetermined zone of habitation. In this case, when the family first applied for their child to enter the school of their choice, they were living within the proper zone. Then, before their child started attending school, they moved two miles outside of the zone.

They were doing nothing illegal ('playing the system' may not be totally honest, but it isn't a crime). Yet their movements were tracked using technologies and systems set up to track and trap terrorists and criminals.

What is unsettling in this case, is that what the borough council did was perfectly legal - or at least, within the letter of the law (if not its spirit). The regulations allow the 600 or so local authorities in the UK to use their discretion in employing certain, fairly sweeping, surveillance powers.

However, those powers were set in place to prevent crime and terror activities; not for keeping track of private citizens going about their business. The law stipulates that the use of surveillance must be necessary and proportionate. In this case, it was neither.

Don't public authorities and their law enforcement personnel have better things to do with their time and resources than following mainly law-abiding people around all day?

Britain is already among the most surveilled societies in the world today with, according to some studies, more CCTV cameras per person than any other nation on earth and people are growing increasingly concerned about just where the line should be drawn on privacy. (In the past few days alone, I've had two requests for media interviews on the subject of privacy.)

There is a real nervousness in the public sphere; a sense that privacy, already tenuous, is slowly being eroded. Identity theft is proving a major problem and the UK national government has demonstrably failed on several recent occasions to protect sensitive personal data within its care.

There are three huge questions which arise from this case.

The first is whether or not the current legislation is specific and tight enough to exclude all but the most necessary uses of surveillance. At present, it seems all to easy for councils to use CCTVs and other surveillance methods at their whim.

Just as important is the question as to whether or not Westminster and other authorities involved in setting these laws have the capability - or the will - to properly police their use. This case only came to light because the family complained and the media took up the story.

However, I think the most pressing question to come out of this is whether or not there is any real capacity for trust left within public authorities. Trust is at the very heart of democratic government. Government can operate only because its citizenry allow it to, entrusting certain powers into its hands.

If government won't trust its people, though, one wonders how long it will be before people return the favour and stop trusting their public representatives and public servants. At this level, a lack of trust breeds social insecurity and a desire to fight the system rather than co-operate with it.

One of the big dangers with all the surveillance potential already in place is its potential for future abuse. What this generation tolerates, the next may treat as the norm - and extend it even further. Unless the law is tightened and false interpretations punished, we can expect to see far wider and more intrusive use of surveillance by governments of the future.

After all, government by nature wants to grow - and when it can no longer extend its reach to cover more people or territory, it will seeks to have greater control over those it already represents.

In this age of terrorism and the like, we are all aware that a certain level of surveillance is important. The contract we make with government is that we will surrender a part of our privacy in return for protection.

In this case, government has tried to take more than it is being offered - and we must speak up about it, or it will happen again and again, until this kind of thing goes unreported, simply because it is commonplace.


Catch the EDGES with Mal Fletcher documentary about privacy, at www.edges.tv.


Other Recent Articles:
Martin Luther King Jnr - The Power Of Promise Over Rejection
Arthur C. Clarke - The Importance Of Engaging The Future.



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Keywords: Poole | Poole Borough Council | surveillance | privacy | cctv | camera | cctv camera | Mal Fletcher | Christian comment | government | Westminster | database | data | identity theft

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