British Government Desire for Surveillance Expropriates Private Property

Lynne Kiesling

For the past couple of years the British government has been extremely aggressive in installing surveillance cameras — CCTV on high streets, speeding cameras on highways, and so on. If you are a typical British citizen, your actions are captured on camera hundreds of times a day, and you can be watched with suspicion even without the government having any probable cause reason to suspect you of anything. Relatedly, they have also been challenging people taking pictures in public, and have recently essentially made it illegal to take pictures of police officers (with the justification being the possibility of terrorist abduction of officers). The erosion of civil liberties in Britain has been short and sharp.

Now some local authorities are witholding liquor licences from pub owners unless they agree to install CCTV inside the pub. One striking recent example is The Draper’s Arms in Islington, a borough of London. As the Londonist notes:

Nick Gibson is attempting to re-open The Draper’s Arms on Barnsbury Street, a former Evening Standard pub of the year winner that shut its doors last August. But to regain a licence, he’s been told he must fit CCTV cameras that capture the head and shoulders of everyone entering the pub, and be willing to hand over footage whenever the police ask for it.

Gibson is furious at what he sees as erosion of civil liberties. However, his local MP and the Metropolitan Police keep blithely citing ‘public safety’. We find that a bit rich, considering studies have shown CCTV is less effective than increased street lighting at cutting crime, and CCTV footage is used to help solve just 3% of London robberies.

Henry Porter comments on this situation in The Guardian, and links to Gibson’s original letter to The Guardian about this erosion of civil liberties. I particularly like this idea:

Gibson has been put in a difficult position and I would expect the council to make the first move to resolve what is a minor but also crucial issue of privacy, which of course is guaranteed to each one of us by the Human Rights Act.

If it fails to do so, he might like to provide a mask at the entrances to his pub with a suggestion that if people want to drink in private they hold up the mask as they pass the cameras. Or possibly drinkers may like to go equipped with their own mask. A V for Vendetta mask seems appropriate (£4.99).

Perhaps there should be a V for Vendetta evening at the Drapers Arms. If Gibson would like to suggest a date in the next two weeks, I will publicise it.

In the meantime, it is important that the police understand it is not their business to use their influence to make and implement policy affecting people’s privacy.

Between the demise of civil liberties in the UK and the demise of economic liberties in the US, I’m beginning to feel like the frog in the pot of water with the temperature increasing. How soon will we be cooked?