Why are our civil liberties still being eroded?

Some schools are now putting CCTV in children's toilets. When will we stand up and fight for our liberties?

Big brother is watching you
Frank Manning
On 18 April 2011 09:17

With most of the media and politicians focusing on the economy and the necessary cuts which will be occurring over the next few years, it’s easy for other vitally important issues to slip through the net of our national consciousness.

All around the country, the encroachment of civil liberties continues unabated, despite assurances from the coalition government that the so-called nanny-state would be rolled back. At Big Brother Watch, we receive numerous calls from people concerned about what’s happening around them.

Despite the obvious objections to them, many schools are actually increasing the amount of CCTV they use, with some even going as far as to put cameras in children’s toilets. This happens with little or no public consultation, and often parents may not even be informed beforehand. Schools existed for hundreds of years without CCTV; there is no justification for its introduction now.

The key issue is proportionality of surveillance. The town of Royston has recently installed what is known as a “ring of steel” -- a set of hidden Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras monitoring every vehicle entering or leaving the area.

They hope it will be useful to catch criminals, but is it really right to monitor every single person and family’s movements because you might catch a criminal? Unless something is done, this system will doubtless turn up in other towns and perhaps even cities. The eventual outcome would be a nationwide network of cameras, with a database containing the movement of every single vehicle.

With public attention focusing on the economy and conflicts in the Middle East, the Protection of Freedoms Bill is in danger of coming to fruition without a national debate on civil liberties.

This matters because councils in particular have eroded our freedom dramatically in recent years.

Covert surveillance, designed to counter terrorism, has been appropriated to monitor bin use, littering, school catchment areas and countless other minor issues. Councils used bailiffs, known for their aggressive, threatening behaviour and dishonesty, almost six million times over the course of the last three years.

When did the relationship between government and populace become so strained and untrusting that councils feel the need to spy on the very people who pay their wages and vote them into power? The role of government is to protect its citizens, not to distrust them.

Of course, there are those who would believe we are simply scaremongering, who subscribe to the “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear” school of thought. The problem is the creeping spread of surveillance. It is somewhat paranoid to imagine that the government is trying to create a world similar to George Orwell’s 1984, that there is a nefarious plan behind it all.

The truth is much simpler: people demand law and order and personal safety, and local and national governments are tasked with achieving this. But increased policing and the process of reforming criminals are expensive, time consuming policies. A camera on the street is quick and easy, and designed to put people’s minds at ease.

If anyone complains about their privacy, the same excuses can be wheeled out ad infinitum: they are there to protect you, they help solve and reduce crime.

Except, as the country with the highest rate of CCTV cameras in the world, you would expect us to have the lowest crime rates. So why don’t we?

Although they may give people the impression of being safer, in reality they are almost always useless as they are often switched off, not monitored properly or so poorly maintained as to render their images worthless.

It is an old cliché that CCTV cameras are simply a cash cow, but when a single traffic monitoring camera in Wandsworth has raised over £1million over the course of the year, fining 9,000 people in the process, how can anyone believe safety is the primary concern?

This government may be relatively benign, but it would be foolish as a nation to imagine that every future government will be the same. If the means to monitor the movements and actions of every single person in the United Kingdom exists, it is only a matter of time before those means are abused, possibly with devastating consequences.

That is without contemplating the prospect of information getting into the wrong hands. As with previous databases held by government, the security of our data can never be certain.

Frank Manning is a researcher at Big Brother Watch, a group specialising in civil liberties and invasions on privacy

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