Privacy Law

Big Brother in Britain: Going Too Far?

Big Brother isn’t just watching these days in much of Britain. He’s telling people what to do.

“Pick it up!” an authoritative voice booms, for instance, when pedestrians near a McDonald’s restaurant in the town of Gloucester drop trash, reports the Los Angeles Times. Britain has the most extensive closed-circuit television monitoring system in the world, with an estimated 4.2 million CCTV cameras–one for every 15 residents. The average citizen is photographed approximately 300 times daily.

Due to a history of terrorist attacks by the Irish Republican Army dating back decades, few question the need for surveillance. (Public acceptance also skyrocketed following a 1993 murder of a toddler by two 10-year-old boys, who were caught on CCTV leading the trusting two-year-old from a shopping center to his death.) “It got to a point where if you were opposing CCTV, you were in favor of child murder,” says Kirstie Ball, a surveillance expert at Open University Business School in Milton Keynes.

But as monitoring of ordinary citizens becomes ever-more intrusive, some are wondering whether it’s gone too far.

“Pub patrons in one town last year had their fingerprints scanned as they walked in (bringing up their criminal records on a computer screen); some cities are considering putting electronic chips in household trash cans to measure output; a toll-free ‘smoke-free compliance line’ takes snitch reports on violators of the new national ban on smoking in public places,” the newspaper reports.

Police maintain a huge databank of DNA profiles, including even suspects determined to be innocent. A $24 billion centralized computer system will soon contain medical records for 50 million citizens. And warrantless wiretaps are commonplace; authorities in Britain are virtually never required to get a judge’s permission before secretly monitoring private phone conversations.

A color-coded survey map created by Privacy International, a civil rights group based in London, puts Britain at the bottom “black” level, along with China and Russia, the Times writes.

“If we had a color that moved from ‘black’ to ‘black hole,’ we’d be talking about” Britain,” says Simon Davies, director of the group.

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