Living in a Surveillance Society

The home of George Orwell now leading the way? In Britain, law has long arms, eagle eyespdf

The closed-circuit television camera lurking just down the street from the fast-food restaurant bellows menacingly at the first sign of danger to the flora, or a cast-off cigarette butt or fast-food wrapper, for that matter. “Pick it up,” commands a booming voice from . . . where, exactly?

The CCTV cameras in Gloucester and several other British towns now come equipped with speakers, meaning Big Brother is not only watching, he’s telling you what to do.

“When people hear that, they tend to react. They pick up the litter and put it in the bin,” said Mick Matthews, assistant chief police constable in this old cathedral city of 110,000 in the rolling Cotswold hills.

For all the increased anti-terrorism security measures in the U.S., there is probably no society on Earth more watched than Britain.

[…] But a growing number of people, including some police officers and the country’s information commissioner, are beginning to wonder whether Britain isn’t watching itself too closely.

[…] In a worldwide survey conducted by Privacy International, a London-based civil rights group that monitors government infringement on privacy, Britain was roughly keeping company with Russia and China near the bottom, colored in black on a world map, with the U.S. not far behind, in red.

Britain has no written constitution, no bill of rights, and no privacy act. Its privacy protections are enforced mainly through the European Convention on Human Rights and a limited data protection law passed in 1998.

“In the area of visual surveillance, we are so far ahead of the field that it’s beyond measurement,” said Simon Davies, the group’s director. “If we had a color that moved from ‘black’ to ‘black hole,’ we’d be talking about” Britain.

The national information commissioner, Richard Thomas, has warned that Britain is “waking up in a surveillance society,” and has called for greater public discussion of what it really means to make one’s life a virtual open book.

“The U.K. has more CCTV cameras per head of population than any other country in the world, but it’s not only that,” Thomas said. “Every time we use mobile telephones, every time we use credit cards, every time we use the Internet for shopping or a search, every time we interact with the government for social security or taxes or passport checks, every time we go to our doctors or hospitals now, we are leaving an electronic footprint. And this of course is not just a U.K. issue, it is an international issue.”