This report in the Telegraph recently ...
Councils, police and other public bodies are seeking access to people’s private telephone and email records almost 1,400 times a day, new figures have disclosed. Councils have been accused of using the powers, which were originally intended to tackle terrorism and organised crime, for trivial matters such as littering and dog fouling.
The authorities made more than 500,000 requests for confidential communications data last year, equivalent to spying on one in every 78 adults, leading to claims that Britain had “sleepwalked into a surveillance society”. An official report also disclosed that hundreds of errors had been made in these “interception” operations, with the wrong phone numbers or emails being monitored.
The figures will fuel concerns over the use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act by public bodies. The Act gives authorities – including councils, the police and intelligence agencies – the power to request access to confidential communications data, including lists of telephone numbers dialled and email addresses to which messages have been sent. Only last month, it emerged that councils and other official bodies had used hidden tracking devices to spy on members of the public.
The latest figures were compiled by Sir Paul Kennedy, the interception of communications commissioner, who reviews requests made under the Act. They relate to monitoring communication “traffic” – such as who is contacting whom, when and where and which websites are visited, but not the content of conversations or messages themselves. Sir Paul found that last year a total of 504,073 such requests were made. The vast majority were made by the police and security services but 123 local councils made a total of 1,553 requests for communications data. Some councils sought lists of the telephone numbers that people had dialled.
Amid growing unease about surveillance powers, ministers issued new guidelines last year about their use. Despite the promised crackdown, the 2008 figure is only slightly lower than 2007’s 519,260 requests.
In April, the Home Office said it would go ahead with plans to track every phone call, email, text message and website visit made by the public, in order to combat terrorists and other criminals.
Chris Huhne, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: “It cannot be a justified response to the problems we face in this country that the state is spying on half a million people a year. We have sleepwalked into a surveillance state but without adequate safeguards.”
Sir Paul defended councils over their use of the Act, concluding: “It is evident that good use is being made of communications data to investigate the types of offences that cause harm to the public.” His report even encourages councils to acquire more communications data, saying that “local authorities could often make more use of this powerful tool to investigate crimes”.
Well, we're delighted that Sir Paul thinks councils are making good use of communications data. For ourselves, we find it a little hard to fathom why any local council could possibly wish to get hold of residents' emails and phone calls. Do they suppose people phone up their friends to tell them where Fido crapped today, or send them emails to discuss the best place to dump a mattress? If Sir Paul wants to reassure the public, let him give us one, just one, example of a justified request from a local council.
He won't, of course. It's a secret. While our lives have to be an open book, the authorities (voted in by us, paid for by us - our servants, in short) can conduct their nasty little affairs under a comfy cloak of anonymity.
And when local councils do know stuff that involves genuine wrong-doing, what do they do with it? Dare one whisper ... "Baby P"?
Meanwhile the Daily Mail revealed that ...
... Big Brother Britain has more CCTV cameras than China
Britain has one and a half times as many surveillance cameras as communist China, despite having a fraction of its population, shocking figures revealed yesterday. There are 4.2million closed circuit TV cameras here, one per every 14 people.
But in police state China, which has a population of 1.3billion, there are just 2.75million cameras, the equivalent of one for every 472,000 of its citizens.
Simon Davies from pressure group Privacy International said the astonishing statistic highlighted Britain's 'worrying obsession' with surveillance. 'Britain has established itself as the model state that the Chinese authorities would love to have,' he said. 'As far as surveillance goes, Britain has created the blueprint for the 21st century non-democratic regime. It was not intended but it has certainly been the consequence.'
It is estimated that Britain has 20 per cent of cameras globally and that each person in the country is caught on camera an average of 300 times daily.
The Chinese Government revealed the number of cameras it has as it announced plans to expand CCTV surveillance. It began widespread installation of cameras in 2003 to bolster its system of extreme state control which hails back to the dark days of Chairman Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.
The government also deploys millions of security personnel, which include uniformed, official security guards who work along side police, patrolling the streets and others who bug phones, scour the internet for sensitive material and block international TV news bulletins.
Err ... sorry, got a bit lost there. Is this the Chinese government or ours? And is there a difference?
Also in the Mail, Henry Porter put his finger on it ...
A land of liberty destroyed by stealth
Returning to Britain from a summer holiday abroad, you begin to notice things that perhaps escaped your attention before - the huge number of CCTV cameras that infest our public spaces and, much less obviously, the atmosphere of watchfulness and control that has now become a way of life.
This is the regime that 12 years of New Labour have imposed on Britain, a place of unwavering suspicion, paranoia - and obsessive surveillance. We have become the sort of society that we would unhesitatingly have railed against a few years ago. But, because the change has been brought about with such stealth, we are the very last to see it.
Voltaire called England 'the land of liberty'. Until New Labour materialised, with its intrusive and 'character improving' agenda, that description rang true. The English preferred freedom and tolerance to ideological and religious fanaticism. The currency of our society was common sense.
No longer. Common sense has been replaced by officially sanctioned mistrust, mistrust that allows anyone invested with the tiniest bit of authority - often in the form of a high-visibility jacket - to throw their weight around. Britain is now a place where terror laws have been used by councils to spy on people breaching smoking bans, making a fraudulent application for a ...(There's a bit missing from the article here. Probably the government took it - GOS)
Police routinely stop anyone who photographs a public building, in one instance deleting the pictures taken by a 69-year-old Austrian tourist who admired the architecture of Vauxhall bus station.
And if the authorities are behaving like this today, what will they subject us to in the run-up to the 2012 London Olympics?(Sorry, Henry, but you're a bit behind the times - see here - GOS)
Wardens in Brighton already habitually seize drink from people on the mere suspicion that they plan to consume it in a public place. And in Edinburgh, a swimming pool attendant stopped the 85-year-old mother of TV presenter Nicky Campbell from taking pictures of her grandchildren.
These stories have become part of our national life - and there are thousands of them each year. I know this because my researcher trawls local and national newspapers for examples every morning. What they add up to is a depressing account of a nation infantilised by micro-management and fear. We are losing something essential to our national identity. Foreigners who know what is going on here cannot believe that the British show such little regard for their freedoms. Even Americans, the most jumpy people in the world, are unsettled by Britain's paranoia.
Government policy is largely to blame. Labour has instilled an endemic culture of suspicion in Britain, which is manifest in the 3,500 new criminal offences brought in over its 12 years in office. Labour is also behind a flurry of new databases that either leech personal information from each one of us or require innocent members of the public to go through an endless rigmarole of proving themselves to the state.
The scale of this project is vast. 'The state and its agencies are amassing increasing quantities of data about its citizens,' writes Jill Kirby, the director of the Centre for Policy Studies, in a recent pamphlet. She lists them as including the DNA database, centralised medical records and the children's database Contact-Point. This data, she says, has 'proliferated to levels previously unseen in peacetime Britain'.
An institutionalised pessimism has taken over. The clear message of Government is that we are incapable of managing our lives and must be watched and regulated by ministers and civil servants from dawn to dusk. More sinister is the assumption that we are all in some way guilty of harbouring the worst intentions. Up to 11 million people who work with children - music tutors, babysitters, football coaches and even parents who have exchange students to stay - will now have to join a new database at the cost of £64 and undergo criminal checks. Writers such as Philip Pullman and Anthony Horowitz, who regularly visit schools, are among those who have roundly condemned the scheme. You can see why - the other day I heard of a retired canon who was told that he could only baptise his grandson in his local cathedral if the church authorities first saw proof of his criminal records check. But it is the Government's obsession with surveillance that poses the greatest threat to our liberty.
Earlier this year, I calculated from published figures that Britain's expenditure on databases and surveillance systems would amount to a staggering £32 billion. Thanks to the economic crisis, some projects have been scaled back. But plans still include a £1 billion system that will give the Government access to data from all emails, text messages, phone calls and internet usage - a proposal that has even been savaged by companies expected to collect the information.
Additionally, the e-Borders scheme, which will take 53 pieces of personal information from anyone travelling abroad - including phone and credit card numbers, details of an onward journey and history of cancelled journeys - will cost over £1.2 billion.
But the absurd amounts spent on these schemes are not the only concern. The threat they pose to our privacy - and the incompetent way in which the Government handles our personal data - are even more worrying. We know, for example, that more than 30 million separate personal files have been lost by government agencies. Recently, a Freedom of Information request by Computer Weekly magazine revealed that nine local authority staff have been sacked for accessing the personal records of celebrities and acquaintances. This largely unpublicised breach should warn us that a government obsessed with hoarding our information and watching us cannot be trusted to keep our details safely.
A similar security lapse in ContactPoint could be disastrous. But even this doesn't compare to the real possibility of the systems that watch our movements, monitor our behaviour and tap into the communications data linking up into one great apparatus of surveillance. This would allow the authorities more or less to monitor our every movement and transaction in real time. Nothing would remain private. If this happens, we can kiss goodbye to a functioning free society in the United Kingdom. We are not there yet - but we can see the seeds everywhere, from the spread of CCTV, and the flood of government regulations to the expropriation of our personal information.
We have to consider the distinct possibility that the obituary for the 'land of liberty' is being composed at this very moment.
Oh well. I expect if we've done nothing wrong, we have nothing to fear.
That is right, isn't it? ....
The GOS says: But just once in a while, there's a little ray of sunshine in the gloom. Someone's just set fire to the speed camera at the end of the road. If I knew who they were, I'd buy them a drink. Trouble is, I wouldn't dare phone them or email them to arrange which pub to meet in. There are a lot of unemployed people around at present, apparently. Perhaps some of them could start up a new service running messages? "Man with Cleft Stick Ltd."?
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