George Orwell Was Right: Spy Cameras See Britons' Every Move
By Nick Allen
Dec. 22 (Bloomberg) -- It's Saturday night in Middlesbrough, England, and drunken university students are celebrating the start of the school year, known as Freshers' Week.
One picks up a traffic cone and runs down the street. Suddenly, a disembodied voice booms out from above:
``You in the black jacket! Yes, you! Put it back!'' The confused student obeys as his friends look bewildered.
``People are shocked when they hear the cameras talk, but when they see everyone else looking at them, they feel a twinge of conscience and comply,'' said Mike Clark, a spokesman for Middlesbrough Council who recounted the incident. The city has placed speakers in its cameras, allowing operators to chastise miscreants who drop coffee cups, ride bicycles too fast or fight outside bars
Almost 70 years after George Orwell created the all-seeing dictator Big Brother in the novel ``1984,'' Britons are being watched as never before. About 4.2 million spy cameras film each citizen 300 times a day, and police have built the world's largest DNA database. Prime Minister Tony Blair said all Britons should carry biometric identification cards to help fight the war on terror.
``Nowhere else in the free world is this happening,'' said Helena Kennedy, a human rights lawyer who also is a member of the House of Lords, the upper house of Parliament. ``The American public would find such inroads into civil liberties wholly unacceptable.''
During the past decade, the government has spent 500 million pounds ($1 billion) on spy cameras and now has one for every 14 citizens, according to a September report prepared for Information Commissioner Richard Thomas by the Surveillance Studies Network, a panel of U.K. academics.
Who's In Charge?
At a single road junction in the London borough of Hammersmith, there are 29 cameras run by police, government, private companies and transport agencies. Police officers are even trying out video cameras mounted on their heads.
``We've got to stand back and see where technology is taking us,'' said Thomas, whose job is to protect people's privacy. ``Humans must dictate our future, not machines.''
Blair said citizens have to sacrifice some freedoms to fight terrorism, illegal immigration and identity fraud.
``We have a modern world that we are living in, with new and different types of crime,'' Blair said Nov. 6 at a press conference in London. ``If we don't use technology in order to combat it, then we won't be fighting crime effectively.''
In the bowels of New Scotland Yard, the headquarters of the London police force, a windowless room contains a giant bank of TV screens where the city is monitored around the clock. At the touch of a button, officers can focus on any neighborhood and zoom in on people's faces.
Police hunting the killer of five prostitutes in Suffolk were able to gather 10,000 hours of footage from in and around Ipswich.
By 2016, there will be cameras using facial recognition technology embedded in lampposts, according to the Surveillance Studies report. Unmanned spy planes will monitor the movements of citizens, while criminals and the elderly will be implanted with microchips to track their movements, the report says.
``The level of surveillance in this country should shock people,'' said David Murakami Wood, a lecturer at the University of Newcastle who headed the study. ``It is infiltrating everything we do.''
Wood is also concerned about the U.K.'s growing DNA database. The files contain the genetic codes of more than 3.8 million people, or 5.2 percent of the population. By comparison, the U.S. has the DNA records of 0.5 percent of its residents.
DNA matches helped solve 45,000 crimes in the U.K. last year, including 422 murders, 645 rapes and 9,000 burglaries, according to the Home Office. But the database isn't foolproof.
Burglar Who Wasn't
Police who knocked on Raymond Easton's door in Swindon, England, in 1999 were certain he had committed burglary at a house 200 miles (300 kilometers) away. DNA found at the scene was a 37 million-to-1 match with Easton's sample, which had been taken three years earlier.
Easton, a former construction worker, had Parkinson's disease and could barely dress himself. He was still charged. Further tests proved he had never been to Bolton, where the burglary occurred, according to the Greater Manchester police.
``Britain's DNA database is spiraling out of control,'' said Helen Wallace, deputy director of GeneWatch U.K., which campaigns for responsible use of genetic science. ``It could allow an unprecedented level of government surveillance.''
Other government plans include loading the confidential medical records of 50 million patients in the state-run health system onto a central database without their consent. Most controversial of all are Blair's biometric ID cards linked to a national register holding every citizen's fingerprints, iris or face scan. Starting in 2010, anyone renewing or applying for a passport will have to get one.
``Desperate for some sort of legacy, the prime minister has nothing to offer but Blair's Big Brother Britain,'' said Phil Booth, national coordinator of the anti-ID card group NO2ID.
To contact the reporter on this story: Nick Allen in London at [email protected]