Leading Article: A pernicious legacy of surveillance


We are used to hearing condemnations of the Government's disregard for our civil liberties from campaigners, journalists and opposition politicians. But in the past week we have heard these same concerns raised by two rather less expected voices. Last week, Colin Langham-Fitt, the acting Chief Constable of Suffolk Police called for a public debate about "the ongoing erosion of civil liberties" in Britain, and criticised the growth of CCTV and the Government's plans to introduce ID cards. And yesterday, Ian Readhead, the Deputy Chief Constable of Hampshire Police complained about CCTV being used in small towns and villages that do not suffer from high levels of crime. He warned that Britain is becoming an "Orwellian" society.

What makes these interventions all the more striking is that the police are usually champions of these sorts of high-technology surveillance systems. And in the past the police have lobbied for innovations such as ID cards and 90-day detention for terror suspects.

But can there be any real doubt that these two officers are right? It is one thing to place a CCTV camera in an inner-city crime hotspot. Such cameras can be a useful way of gathering evidence to convict offenders. But what can be the justification for placing CCTV in small, largely law-abiding, villages? And what can be the justification for the fact that there are now 4.2 million such cameras in Britain, one for every 14 people, far more than any other country in the world? Is it reasonable that a single person can be caught on more than 300 cameras a day in the UK?

The truth is that, in Britain, we have ceased to seek a rational justification for the existence of most of these cameras. When a new one appears, fixed to a lamp-post or hidden in the corner of a building, we tend to shrug our shoulders and accept it. In the words of the UK information commissioner, Richard Thomas, we are in danger of "sleepwalking" into a surveillance society.

The growth of CCTV will go down as another of the pernicious legacies of the Blair era, like the ID cards scheme, the ever-expanding DNA database, the resurgence of police stop-and-search techniques, antisocial behaviour orders, and 28-day detention for terror suspects. All this authoritarian apparatus has been imposed on us by a Government that has made its motto: "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear". Now it seems even the police are beginning to see through that lie.

Mr Readhead surely spoke for a great multitude of the British population when he argued yesterday: "I really don't think that's the kind of country I want to live in".

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