Domestic surveillance UK-style

by Chris Bertram on December 22, 2005

Much of the blogosphere, including this bit, is getting excited about the US government’s surveillance of its citizens and whether Bush has acted outside the law. I have to say, though, that what we British have to put up with exceeds the worst imaginings of the most paranoid US libertarian. The latest plan, “as summarized in the Independent”: :

bq. Britain is to become the first country in the world where the movements of all vehicles on the roads are recorded. A new national surveillance system will hold the records for at least two years.

bq. Using a network of cameras that can automatically read every passing number plate, the plan is to build a huge database of vehicle movements so that the police and security services can analyse any journey a driver has made over several years.

Read the whole scary thing, notice that MI5 will have access to all the data, and wonder whether the information will be used to expose the extramarital affairs of inconvenient politicians, or similar.

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Tim Worstall
12.23.05 at 4:18 am



brendan 12.22.05 at 6:23 am

Is to surveille a verb? Or is it to ‘surveillance’? Either way, the UK is one of the most surveille…er…sureilled….watched countries in the world. For example we have amongst the highest numbers of CCTV cameras in the world (visitors frequently comment on the number of CCTV cameras).

As for phone tapping: of course, yes, there are checks and balances. .

‘The Investigatory Powers Tribunal – which oversee complaints (over phone tapping)… has never upheld a complaint made to it. Likewise, its predecessor, the Interception of Communications Tribunal, did not uphold a single complaint in its 13 years of existence.’

More on the Labour assault on civil liberties here .

And of course, don’t forget they want to bring in ID cards.

However I would say that the question is not about whether the US is a freer country than the UK (it self-evidently is). The question is about whether in authorising these wire taps Bush broke the law, which is a rather different issue.


Chris Bertram 12.22.05 at 6:40 am

The substantive question of government surveillance and the question of whether it is within the law strike me as both being questions of importance Brendan.


des von bladet 12.22.05 at 6:50 am

Speaking as a British, I find it quite possible to wish the government were less keen to stalk me while at the same time boggling at the once-great nation across the pond.

Maybe I should teach seminars on political multi-tasking and charge a smallish fortune to show Brendan (and his ilk, if he has one) how.


Peter Clay 12.22.05 at 7:07 am

Something strange seems to have happened: the UK no longer cares about privacy. Individuals still do, I know quite a lot of them; but it’s not an argument that makes it into public debate. My suspicion is that this it is in the interests of newspapers (mostly owned by Murdoch) to erode privacy too.


yonray 12.22.05 at 7:28 am

How much, not whether, is the issue for me. CCTV enabled the identification and arrest of four youths who beat up, doused with petrol and fatally burned a beggar sleeping in a Barcelona ATM recently. Not many of us will have a problem with that – yet similarly few, I suspect, will applaud the scary recording-everything database which Chris draws our attention to. So how much then?


Idiot/Savant 12.22.05 at 7:39 am

Yonray: part of the problem is that you’re not even being asked. Instead of being debated by Parliament, this is being done by stealth, by unelected chiefs of police and a cabinet which gives them the money, no questions asked. Shouldn’t there at least be some public input, rather than having the decision on how much surveillance the public is willing to accept made for it behind their backs?


Matt McGrattan 12.22.05 at 7:56 am

Nothing that this government chooses to do surprises me anymore. They clearly have no conception of liberty at all. None.


nick s 12.22.05 at 8:03 am

Remember that the Fourth Amendment was novel to the American constitution, as opposed to much of the Bill of Rights, which took its cue from the 1689 English Bill. That’s because the rebel Americans were the ones subject to search and seizure, and the British loyalists were the ones doing the searching and seizing.

Anyway, I’ll point to my mate Danny’s latest little project. That’s what happens to Brits who live in Silicon Valley for too long: they get all sorts of funny ideas about privacy and civil liberties…


dp 12.22.05 at 8:18 am

Since when is a car the same thing as a human? Analysing the movements of a car is not the same as knowing the whereabouts of the owner, nor the identity of the driver, the passengers, and any contents.

Recording the movement of cars is no different than recording the movements of trains, airplanes, buses, coaches, and other modes of industrial and mass transport. Each of which is subject to various measures of surveillance and regulation. A good thing.

Of these, airplanes are the only ones that scrupulously record the identities of all aboard. So when are we going to hear an outcry about the lack of privacy on planes? Or is it too late for that, in which case a facile attention to a much less invasive prospect is warranted, right?

Unless cars suddenly have human rights, it’s in our best interest to regulate them more highly, particularly in light of the social and environmental damage they do.

I’m glad to see cars regulated in the same manner as other forms of motorised transport. About fucking time….


Barry 12.22.05 at 8:20 am

“My suspicion is that this it is in the interests of newspapers (mostly owned by Murdoch) to erode privacy too.”

Posted by Peter Clay ·

I’m sure that many corporate interests could be served by access to this sort of data. Combined with credit card data, and other demographic data, some fightening profiles could be generated.


abb1 12.22.05 at 8:25 am

Is there a (casuistical) excuse that what’s being traced and recoded is not citizens but cars, government-issued license plates? I mean, they don’t know who’s in the car; that’s, arguably, less intrusive than air-travel passenger lists with actual names.


abb1 12.22.05 at 8:27 am

Oops, sorry, I see Dp already addressed that.


Ginger Yellow 12.22.05 at 9:50 am

Conversely Britain doesn’t allow wiretap evidence in court. This has the perverse effect of eroding civil liberties because the government would rather hold suspects indefinitely than “compromise” intelligence gathering, even though almost every other country in the world manages just fine.


Peter Clay 12.22.05 at 9:51 am

Well, first of all they’re likely to reverse the burden of proof for cars (so you’re liable for it speeding unless you can prove you weren’t driving). Buses and coaches don’t currently have their movements tracked by the state, nor do their operators record passenger lists.

The air-travel tracking is hardly uncontrovertial: John Gilmor is currently contesting the requirement to show ID on internal flights in the US, on the grounds that it amounts to internal passports. And there is dispute over CAPPS-II and the other passenger data schemes.

The argument that it’s regulating cars not humans is silly: you could just as well ban opposition party symbols and pamphlets on the grounds that they are inanimate objects and don’t have rights. Regulating inanimate objects is regulating the actions of people, who (it is said) have rights.


Tim Worstall 12.22.05 at 11:26 am

Speaking as a paranoid libertarian I am indeed appalled.


abb1 12.22.05 at 11:27 am

Banning opposition party symbols is different from recording license plates. A better analogy would would be requirement to register cars – or firearms for that matter.

Tim MCVeigh, was driving car without a license because he felt that registering a car was an unreasonable burden.


Bro. Bartleby 12.22.05 at 1:28 pm

And I recall watching CNN when the Chinese pulled their plug during the Tiananmen Square protests, but prior to the pulling of the plug, the CNN camera pointed to some of the surveillance cameras atop tall poles in the square, and we watching the scene on televisions in America were shaking our heads — imagine, cameras spying on their own citizens! Certainly the icon of communism! And today? We in America are surrounded by surveillance cameras, recording our every movement, yet the shock of 1989 is strangely absent. It is amazing what we will give up for the promise of security.
Bro. Bartleby


serial catowner 12.22.05 at 1:47 pm

Well, maybe you’d like some sugar with that pill. In the U.S. the trucking companies already use GPS and onboard computers to monitor everything the driver does. My guess is that in just a few years you will be offered a lower rate on car insurance if you agree to onboard monitoring of your driving.

Driving ain’t going to be what it used to.


bellatrys 12.22.05 at 2:45 pm

Because the EZ Pass toll paying system does, yes, record where you are when you go through a toll on that system, and deduct even if you would rather pay cash on that occasions, they provide a foil packet to cover the transmitter.

Now, if you’re paranoid, you might worry about this being used to track your out-of-state movements and cover it for that reason, too, not just the financial ones.

If you’re *really* paranoid, like me, you might at least wonder if the mylar actually blocks the signal, or just changes it to not deduct, while still recording your vehicle’s passage through the checkpoint…


Bro. Bartleby 12.22.05 at 2:45 pm

Got a cell phone? You then are already carrying around a GPS that if so inclinded, NSA can track your every movement. Oh yeah, for about $15 a month, you too can track your son or daughter or husband or wife when they are carrying their cell phone. Ahh, to return to Tiananmen Square when surveillance was so … was so pure and uncomplicated.


Chris Lightfoot 12.22.05 at 3:18 pm

One of the funny things about the UK is how radically different a debate about privacy becomes when people’s motor cars are introduced. For instance, compare editorials from The Sun on the subjects of vehicle tracking and on the government’s ID card proposals, which would record details of every routine identity check in a centralised database:

Once every car, van, lorry and motorbike in the land is linked by satellite to a Big Brother computer, they’ve got us.

They can track us, control us, fine us and snoop on us.

This is still a free country. Let’s keep it that way.


IDENTITY cards are an excellent idea but they will be pointless if they’re watered down.

Shurely shome mishtake?

Now, it’d be an error to mistake Sun editorials for public opinion, but you can see the same sort of contrast in straw polls on the BBC, for instance.

I’d love to know why tracking people’s every move is OK, right up to the point when they get in a car.


Bill Jones (really) 12.22.05 at 4:01 pm

It sounds appalling to me but isn’t the Independent headline a little misleading?

It makes it sound like, starting January 1st, every car journey in GB will be tracked beginnig to end. I bet this is no where near likely. Are there already CCTVs pointed at every cottage on the moor, every shack in the forest, every cul-de-sac in suburbia? If so, why do they need an agreement with the private business using the cameras? The infrastructure isn’t there yet by a long shot (not that it won’t be sometime in the future.)


Bob B 12.22.05 at 6:08 pm

It gets worse.

Possibly because I no longer own and drive a car, I am less concerned about the tracking of all motor vehicle movements than I am about the threat to the confidentiality of personal medical records from the massive National Health Service (NHS) project now underway to spend £6.2 billions creating a national computer database of the records:

“Doctors fear the computerisation of medical records could threaten patient confidentiality. In future records will be stored on a national database, which will allow staff to access information wherever someone is treated. However, doctors are concerned the system, part of the NHS’s £6.2bn IT upgrade, could be open to abuse. . . ”

Personally, I am of an age when I have no special cause to worry unduly about who knows the details of my medical history but that is not true of everyone. It seems to me probable that women are particularly vunerable to blackmail. My GP – or any hospital consultant I might visit – has the great convenience of being able to call up my medical records on screen at a mouse click. Doubtless, the records are password protected but I once asked my GP if he knew where the records are actually located and he had no idea.

Dozens of computer developers will likely be working to create the national database and they will probably find it possible to access personal records. I am quite willing to believe that there are valuable benefits of convenience in having a comprehensive national database of personal medical records accessible by any number of interested parties but how do so many other countries manage healthcare without them?


Bro. Bartleby 12.22.05 at 6:38 pm

It gets worse?
It will get better.
When the daycare centers get the tots computer savvy, then the elementary teachers taking charge with mandatory student blogs, and soon it will all seem sort of natural to tap out your every thought on the keyboard, then so it will go into middle school …
And then?
You doctor will call up YOUR blog, do a few searches to discover all your ailments and complaints, then go about with the treatment; so too your psychiatrist will search for any weirdness in your postings; your banker will keep tabs on your spending habits; your lawyer will search for potential lawsuit material; and your mother will keep tabs on your marriage … and will be emailing your doctor, your psychiatrist, your banker, your lawyer, your wife … just to point out the errata and to set the record straight.


Sam Dodsworth 12.22.05 at 6:45 pm

Doctors fear the computerisation of medical records could threaten patient confidentiality.

It’s been nearly fifteen years since I worked for the NHS, but the word on the street back then was that GPs fear the computerisation of medical records because their funding depends on how many patients they have registered. A full-on computerised patient record system would cost them money by forcing them to clean up inactive and duplicate records.

I was working in a hospital, though – and it appears that hospitals and GPs are natural enemies.

(Note also that there were plans for a full-on computerised patient record system fifteen years ago, but it still hasn’t materialized. This is because relatively few people want it and no one wants to pay for it. And because the NHS Information Services Committee of the time were both largely powerless and largely useless, of course.)

On the other hand, everyone involved seemed to be aware of at least some privacy issues. Apparently, some health and life insurance companies will pay cash with no questions asked for medical records.


Bob B 12.23.05 at 6:53 am

In all this, perhaps two factors intrigue me the most.

For an ancient historic nation with one of the great traditions in libertarian writing and commitment – Magna Carta, John Locke, Adam Smith, John Wilkes, Tom Paine, Edmund Burke, JS Mill, Isiaih Berlin – we are now well on the way to being the most monitored, tracked, surveyed and officially tabbed, supposedly on Dr Goebbel’s infamous rationale: Those who have nothing to hide, have nothing to fear. Despite or possibly because of that, we now have a prison population at record levels and the largest per capita prison population in Western Europe:

“More people are jailed in England and Wales than in any other western European country – and more, per capita, than Libya, Malaysia and Burma.”

Naturally, it swells my heart with patriotic fervour to know that we have proportionally more in prison than those beacons of libertarian democracy: Libya, Malaysia and Burma. Moreover, violent crime is still increasing steadily and relentlessly; although Siddiq Khan, the group leader of the London bombers of 7/7, had been previously identified and monitored by MI5, the internal security service, they discounted him as likely to pose a serious threat and dropped the surveillance. Rather like the recently proposed high-tech ID cards intended to preserve both security and our civil liberties, the heavy monitoring infrastructure evidently doesn’t actually prevent terrorist outrages.

The second factor is that this state of affairs has been driven through by a government claiming to be left-centred and liberalising, committed to open, cleaner government and freedom of information about government as well as habitually given to denouncing the centralising and controlling agendas of preceding Thatcherite tendencies.

We might draw the appropriate logical conclusions from all the conjunctions.


Simstim 12.24.05 at 12:42 pm

Chris Lightfoot: it’s because it’s impinging on the British person’s God-given right to speed. All that other stuff, that’s only going to happen to “the terrorists” or other “proper” criminals. This also accounts for the difference in acceptability between CCTV and speed cameras.


Bob B 12.25.05 at 6:44 am

Admittedly, we are curiously ambivalent about guilt for motoring crimes in Britain but that is not a characteristic national trait. In fact, we (fortunately) endure an unusually low rate of traffic accident fatalities per head of population compared with almost all other OECD countries – the only close competitor is Sweden, which has a population of 9 million and a land area only a bit short of twice that of Britain. We evidently attach much weight to the intentions motivating personal behaviour as compared with the consequences: it apparently matters much less if you kill a group of children as a drunk driver than if you kill fewer as a paedophile.

Some in Britain have tried to make issue of the extent of public CCTV monitoring – we exceeded an estimated 4 million public CCTV cameras several years before 9/11. The cameras are widely accepted, perhaps because the implications were not widely appreciated and the cameras have become very inconspicuous. Casual observation and hearsay also suggest that few folk appreciate how trackable are the locations of the mobile phones which they regularly carry around even though the location of phones has featured as evidence in several high profile criminal trials.

On balance, public reaction to the Congestion Charge applied to motor vehicles in central London (which depends on similar technology to speed cameras) has been favourable despite the campaigns of some tabloids. The prospect of road pricing by satellite surveillance of all motor vehicles has been mooted without so far provoking appreciable adverse reaction. The popular claim to have been working late at the office will soon cease to function as an alibi for anything unless supported by vehicle tracking evidence.

Given the extent of public acceptance of privacy-invasion by all this monitoring, survelliance and tracking, I am a bit puzzled at the uproar about the proposals for ID cards with biometrics. Personally, I regard the threat to the confidentiality of personal medical records by a national database for the NHS a more serious issue. Given the surge in the incidence of STDs in recent years, I would suppose the loss of confidentiality for medical records could generate blackmailing opportunities.


PersonFromPorlock 12.25.05 at 8:11 pm

Britons never have been free, they just had permission to act that way for a while. That permission is now being withdrawn by the government as inconvenient.

I don’t see what all the complaining is about; have a revolution, establish the people as sovereign, run things your way, fine. But don’t whinge (excellent word!) because the people you let run you are running you their way.

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