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The rise of Big Brother Britain

Posted by James Hammerton @ 9:19 pm on 3 January, 2006.
Categories privacy and surveillance, political liberties.
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Firstly, I wish a Happy 2006 to all the readers of Magna Carta Plus and apologise for the lack of posting on the blog recently.

But now to the main purpose of this post. It is clear that Britain is developing the infrastructure for the mass surveillance of the general public, with almost every aspect of their lives coming under surveillance — and other countries have made their own steps down this road. This trend stretches back to the rise of CCTV in towns and shopping centres during the 1990s, but the trend is now accelerating. There are several lines of development:

  • The monitoring and storage of communications data. By the term “communications data” I mean the data covered by Section 21(4) of Britain’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act(RIPA) 2000. This data includes information about who you communicate with and even the location of your mobile phone when switched on. Under RIPA, the security services (MI5, MI6, GCHQ), the inland revenue, customs & excise and the police can monitor this information on their own authority, however the “Snooper’s Charter” extended such powers to local authorities and numerous quangoes (see the discussion of the “Snooper’s Charter” here).

    Thus far we merely have a broad power to monitor individuals who are under suspicion, but under the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001, the British government asked communications providers to store communications data for upto 2 years for retrospective trawling, under threat of bringing in a compulsory scheme for such retention if they failed to cooperate. Then, during the recent British presidency of the EU (which ran through the last 6 months of 2005), they pushed the EU to adopt a directive requiring the retention of this data for 6 months to two years across the EU. This directive was adopted in December. This means that data about who you communicate with electronically will be stored for upto 2 years, regardless of whether you’re suspected of a crime, and made available for retrospective trawling.

  • The monitoring of car journeys. A number of systems which use CCTV and/or Automatic Number Plate Recognition(ANPR) to record every journey in a particular area have been developed, such as:

    However more ambitious and more worrying are plans to use ANPR to track people’s journeys and store the details for 2 years for retrospective trawling, as reported in the Independent and the Sunday Times. And in the longer term there are even proposals to track every single car journey made in Britain by requiring all cars to have satellite trackers in them (see also’s discussion).

  • The government’s Identity Cards Bill. If this goes ahead, every time your identity is checked, it’ll be recorded on the national identity register. The government intends identity checks to be required for everything from opening a bank account or enrolling your kids at school through to registering with a doctor — thus this database will record everyone’s activities in considerable detail.

The trend is clear. The government is collecting more and more information about us and storing it for future analysis, regardless of whether we’re suspected of doing anything wrong. It is moving us steadily closer to a state where we are under surveillance in all our activities 24/7. Yet there’s barely any protest about these developments and indeed some seem to welcome them.

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