Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Shocking and disappointing

The city council in my beloved Bradford has been caught spying on its own citizens. Jason Teasdale of the Telegraph & Argus (in the roof of whose offices I did work experience with the Rugby League Express) reports:
" Bradford Council has been branded a "Big Brother" authority for allowing more and more of its CCTV cameras to be used in so-called "covert" police and customs investigations. Figures obtained by the Telegraph & Argus under the Freedom of Information Act [good work, T&A!] show Council officers approved more secret surveillance operations in the last year than they did in the previous four years combined.

Just 13 incidents of undercover filming were approved between 2000 and 2004, but there were 17 last year. Fifteen requests came from the police and two from Customs and Excise. The former chairman of Bradford Council's community safety sub-committee, which oversaw the network's installation in 1990, is outraged and has called for discussion on the issue.

Councillor John Ruding (Lab, Tong) said the system was never meant to be used in this way: "We are beginning to be `Big Brother' to the community of this district and we were never elected to be that," he said. "We are not MI5 or the police; they have cameras of their own." Coun Ruding said it was unacceptable that an officer can make covert use of the Council's CCTV without any elected member being involved.
The key here is that the council-run camera system is being used for what is described as "directed surveillance" - that is, monitoring of specific persons or premises as opposed to simply watching and waiting for crimes to be committed. As Councillor Ruding points out, the police have their own mobile equipment, and anyway are the only authority (with Customs, Immigration, MI5 etc) allowed to carry out directed surveillance. Further, the council system is funded by Bradford taxpayers - the cash wasn't, as it happened, voted for following people around, and there's no suggestion that They are paying Bradford Council for the use of their cameras.

The distinction between "directed" and any other kind of surveillance may sound like sophistry, but it is crucial. We are a free society. That means that we should not follow citizens around as a matter of course; if we must, we only do so in order to prosecute specific criminals for specific criminal acts. If surveillance can only be carried out with equipment placed for the purpose, then it is far more likely to be removed when the case is closed. If wide-area CCTV systems are re-purposed for this, though, there is no way for the ordinary citizen to know that it will ever stop. Hence the importance.

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