I must applaud the statement by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith on Friday: “The Government has absolutely no interest in spying on law-abiding people going about their everyday lives. I don’t want to see these powers being used to target people for putting their bins out on the wrong day or for dog fouling offences.”
This is a literally Churchillian quote by the way, with a nod to the language used by the former Prime Minister’s opposition to ID cards – I hope that Jacquie Smith thinks through the logic of her pronouncement and rethinks ID cards herself.
The Home Office has called for local authorities to be reigned in from secretly filming the population. Last July I was interviewed by the Swindon Advertiser about the use of surveillance cameras by Swindon Borough Council.
Andy Newman, a spokesman for Swindon Stop the War Coalition, says Swindon Council should think twice before they create a culture in the town where the local authority criminalises youths by spying on them.
He says he decided to speak out after reading an Advertiser investigation that found the council had used a law passed under anti-terror legislation, called Regulatory Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), to conduct 13 separate spy missions on suspected tagging teenagers last year.
He believes that because the council passes on photographic and video evidence of teenagers onto police they are unnecessarily putting children on the ‘wrong side of the law’.
He reckons the strategy may end up making things worse for everyone by turning ‘teenage hijinks’ into criminal behaviour.
He said: “Everyone does bad things when they are kids but it is a phase most grow out of.
“But now the council seem to be criminalising these kids by trying to catch them in the act and turning them over to the police.
“This isn’t a deterrent like speed cameras, because these cameras are not visible – it seems like they are more about catching people in the act.
“The question is, as a society do we really want to be putting our children on the wrong side of the law by spying on them?
“A lot of the things like graffiti that the council are spying on kids for were considered teenage hijinks 10-years ago but now we are trying to convict teenagers in the criminal justice system for it.
“These civil rights infringements are being justified by telling us they are there to protect society from bombers and terrorists.
“But look at our local authorities, now they are using them to hide cameras around town in an attempt to catch teenagers spraying paint on walls.”
The powers granted under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). RIPA was enacted to provide councils with powers to combat terrorism or to help investigate serious crime.
But instead some councils, including Swindon Borough Council, have been using it for investigating graffiti and fly-tipping. There is of course a massive contradiction that Swindon Tories have voted to remove speed cameras that try to prevent unlawful dangerous driving, but advocate using cameras to spy on people to prevent the rather less serious social problem of grafitti.
For example, Tory councillor Peter Greenhalgh, head of highways, transport and strategic planning for Swindon was quoted by Virgin Media last year saying:
“I think enough is enough. There are much more important things we as a council should do instead of acting as a law enforcement arm of this Government.”
To be fair to Peter, he is not a hypocrite here, as I understand that he personally doesn’t support the use of surveillance cameras under RIPA either. But his conservative colleagues who voted to scrap speed cameras, but who also support covert filming of Swindon’s citizens are indeed hypocrites.
The intrusion here is that the surveillance is indiscriminate: they site cameras so that they film everyone in view including law abiding citizens going about their legitimate business, in order to try to catch a minority of anti-social people.
It should not be the role of the state in a liberal democracy to spy upon the private but lawful activities of citizens, unless there is an overriding public interest in doing so – such as protection of public safety.
This is another example of how poorly drafted legislation rushed through on the back of public panic about terrorism has led to an erosion of civil liberties far removed from terrorism or public safety.