Bumbling Big Brother

What Americans can learn from the British experience with government surveillance

The Road to Big Brother: One Man’s Struggle Against the Surveillance State, by Ross Clark, New York: Encounter Books, 140 pages, $21.95 

Last October several British newspapers reported that Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s government was working on a plan to monitor every phone call, website visit, text message, and email in the country, entering the information into an enormous database that would be used to catch terrorists, pedophiles, and scam artists. Dominic Grieve, the shadow home secretary, called it “a substantial shift in the powers of the state to obtain information on individuals” and warned that “any suggestion of the government using existing powers to intercept communications data without public discussion is going to sound extremely sinister.” 

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith later gave a speech in which she said the electronic dragnet would be limited to data transmitted through websites and information about the identities and locations of senders and recipients. She said investigators would still need ministerial warrants, a kind of administrative subpoena, to listen to or read the contents of communications. The speech apparently did not reassure Ken MacDonald, director of public prosecutions for England and Wales. In late October, shortly before stepping down from his post, MacDonald warned that “decisions taken in the next few months and years about how the state may use these [surveillance] powers, and to what extent, are likely to be irreversible,” adding, “We need to take very great care not to fall into a way of life in which freedom’s back is broken by the relentless pressure of a security state.”

The episode illustrated two points that are reinforced by British journalist Ross Clark’s wry, revealing book The Road to Big Brother: One Man’s Struggle Against the Surveillance State. First, despite the U.K.’s reputation as one of the most watched societies in the world, with more surveillance cameras per capita than any other country, its citizens, notably including law enforcement officials, still care about privacy. Second, their complaints are more easily ignored than similar objections in the United States, where the Fourth Amendment and various statutes prevent the executive branch from unilaterally changing the rules regarding government snooping. 

In the U.S., implementing a data collection program like the one contemplated by the British government would require not only the “public discussion” demanded by Dominic Grieve but congressional authorization. The legislation, in turn, would be reviewed by the courts, which are unlikely to allow so much heretofore private information to be gathered on so many innocent people, let alone bless routine wiretapping based on administrative subpoenas. Nor would American courts approve mandatory DNA sampling of every citizen and visitor, as a British appeals court judge has suggested, or let police stop people and search their pockets and bags at will, a policy Clark says is in the offing.

Still, there is much Americans can learn from the British experience with surveillance. Take all those cameras. So far in the United States, they have been limited mainly to detecting traffic violations, generating heated debate about whether they reduce or increase accidents and whether municipalities are sacrificing public safety for the sake of revenue (by reducing the duration of yellow lights, for example). But provided they focus only on public areas, there is no constitutional barrier to erecting surveillance cameras throughout the United States, until our country is as thick with them as the U.K. After all, the government could, in theory, post police officers on every corner, and they would be free to look and listen without violating anyone’s Fourth Amendment rights. Looking and listening from a distance does not change the constitutional question.

Yet there is something to be said, fiscal concerns aside, for not having a cop on every corner. The sense of being constantly watched tends to put a damper on things, potentially affecting the topics people discuss, the way they dress, the businesses they visit, even the books they read while sitting on park benches.

By Clark’s account, this cost is not worth paying. He says the evidence that the government’s surveillance cameras are effective at either deterring or detecting crime is thin. Facial recognition software aimed at catching known suspects has been a bust, easily foiled by poor lighting, hats, sunglasses, even a few months of aging. Clark argues that Britain’s cameras, which he describes as frequently unmonitored or out of order, are appealing as a relatively cheap way of seeming to do something about crime. He finds that “electronic surveillance is not always augmenting traditional policing; it is more often than not replacing it, with poor results.” Likewise, he says, huge collections of information gleaned from private sources such as phone companies, banks, and credit bureaus (along the lines of America’s renamed but not abandoned Total Information Awareness program) are unmanageable and rife with errors. Clark notes that “there is a fundamental rule about databases: the bigger they are, the more useless they become.” 

Again and again, Clark finds, high-tech systems that seem at first to be outrageous invasions of privacy turn out to be outrageous boondoggles that not only don’t succeed at their official goals but actually get in the way of catching genuine bad guys and protecting public safety. “The excessive collection of data tends to act as a fog through which authorities struggle to find what they are looking for,” he writes. “The more Big Brother watches, the less he seems to see.”

As Clark emphasizes, an excessively nosy government poses many dangers, including exposure to fraud and blackmail, unjustified interference with freedom of travel, and mistaken incrimination. But it is reassuring to realize that government is not competent enough to be omniscient.

Senior Editor Jacob Sullum (jsullum@reason.com) is a nationally syndicated columnist. A version of this review originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

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  • MaterialMonkee||

    not read the article yet but jumping in like a fool

    "What Americans Can Learn from Britain's Surveillance State?"

    That it doesn't work?

    ( CCTV didn't help 7/7 and IDcards didn't help the Spanish)

    Apparently when the Tories get in it'll be shelved
    (as the waste of money that it is)

    but seeing is believing

  • ||

    The best defense against the surveillance state is a paintball gun and a ski mask.

  • ||

    With technology such that you can for a few hundred bucks buy a high quality camera small enough to see through a peep hole, I don't know how we have any privacy anymore. A sportscaster for ESPN was secretly videotaped naked in her hotel room and the film ended up on the internet. It is doubtful they will ever find who took the video. And is the video will now thanks to the internet exist forever. At this point, you effectively have no privacy beyond the hope that no one will be interested in looking at your life. If you are a public figure, you can just forget it.

  • ||

    If they do that bullshit in the US, every regular visitor of Reason will be put on the terror watch list. Because, according to BO and the Dept. of Homeland Security, we are all probably domestic terrorists, right wing extremists and separatists.

  • ||

    A sportscaster for ESPN was secretly videotaped naked in her hotel room and the film ended up on the internet.

    Ahem. Linky?

  • ||


    I am at work so i can't send you the link. It was Erin Andrews. Also, if you google, I am told many of the sites claiming to have the actual video just install a virus on your computer (damned hackers need to be shot). The best I can do is the blurred out but surprisingly good still of the video in the NYPOST this morning.


    You got to love the Post publishing the stills. They are true tabloid. And yes her body appears to exceed expectations.

  • ||

    Is it sad that I half suspect the whole thing is a put up job and that she consented to it and did it for publicity? We don't know but it wouldn't shock me.

  • name witheld to protect the gu||

    Ahem. Linky?


    Download the "archive.zip" file and extract the flash video files. Yes, I scanned the files and they are virus-free. And yes, they are worth the effort. :)

  • ||

    At this point, you effectively have no privacy beyond the hope that no one will be interested in looking at your life.

    That depends on where you live. I was in Joplin, MO (not exactly a metropolis but god there were lots of cameras) for about 6 months and man am I glad to be back in rural Arizona. Giant swaths of land where not only are there no cameras but few people. If you want privacy, look up Yucca, AZ. Rural Idaho is much the same. I don't think you'll find too many camera in Elk City. It is a value judgment. Which would you rather have Starbucks, malls, traffic, and Taco Bell or privacy.

    And who watches all these cameras?

  • Morton Kurzweil||

    Penis recognition, software please, might narrow the suspects to the usual Muslims and Jews. Of course the British will catch on that C of E recruits can be hired to do the job, but not after the CSS (Citizen Spy Network) has bankrupted the Motherland.

  • ||

    Not that I know. But I have been told that the link above is legit.

  • ||

    "The best defense against the surveillance state is a paintball gun and a ski mask."

    Until the war in Iraq ends, and those surplus Predator drones are sold to SWAT departments. Then you'll need paintball anti-aircraft artillery. By then, only outlaws will have paintball guns.

    July 9, 2009 7:00 am

    Peter is joined by author, Matt Bracken to talk about his book,
    "Enemies: Foreign and Domestic."

    July 9, 2009 8:00am

    In the final hour of the show, Peter continued talking with Matt
    Bracken about the current direction of the country.

  • ||


    The STU [Special Training Unit] had its own single-engine Piper Lance, and had obtained a BigEye surveillance pod for it. The BigEye was a gyro-stabilized combination video camera for daytime use, and infra-red camera for night use. An operator in the plane could put the camera's cursor mark on a stationary or moving ground target and the camera would lock on to it even as the plane circled high above, out of sight and sound of its quarry.

    The extensive use of light planes was a tradition in the ATF going back decades; from the time when the "revenue agents" had flown them to spot bootleg liquor stills from the air. These pilot-qualified agents bragged that for them ATF stood for 'agents that fly'. The numerous flying special agents and ATF light planes often permitted them to reach the scenes of federal crimes involving illegal firearms or explosives before any other agencies. Any one-horse Podunk town with a dirt landing strip nearby could usually have ATF agents on the ground in a few hours at most. The ATF was independently air-mobile to a greater degree than most other agencies at the light plane end of the aviation spectrum.

    After a brief familiarization period with the BigEye Malvone gave his air team the addresses of a dozen senior government officials who were in a position to help the STU. They hit pay dirt on a Sunday morning in June when the Piper was flying lazy eights over Fairfax County Virginia, and they noticed activity at the estate of Deputy AG Paul Wilson. A Mercedes arrived with a young couple who turned out to be Wilson's daughter and son-in-law. Mrs. Wilson then left with them to attend church services.

    Soon after the driveway's automatic gate closed behind the Mercedes, Paul Wilson had appeared in a bathrobe on the back patio of the mansion by the swimming pool, accompanied by someone else. The stabilized zoom lens of the Big Eye then recorded in intimate detail the white-haired senior federal official and a black-haired girl playing in the Jacuzzi, with no detail left to the imagination for the next fifteen minutes. Upon further investigation the girl had turned out to be the 16 year old daughter of the Wilson's Costa Rican housekeeper, who had taken the day off.

    Malvone was smiling broadly at the memory. "As soon as I saw that tape I knew we'd own Wilson, we'd have him in our pocket. When the time comes he's going to go to bat for us, big time, and we'll get the Special Projects Division approved."

  • edna||

    the reality of the money quote is evident to anyone who saw "brazil." that reality of totalitarian surveillance is far more realistic than orwell's notion of a state with perfect efficiency.

    perfect surveillance efficiency is not likely from the country that brought you lucas, british food, and their notion of dentistry.

  • ||

    "If they do that bullshit in the US, every regular visitor of Reason will be put on the terror watch list. Because, according to BO and the Dept. of Homeland Security, we are all probably domestic terrorists, right wing extremists and separatists."

    1st, you forgot "lunatic." And I should hope so. I am a drunken, lazy, fat, unattractive porn addict... And I should hope that I am getting some value from my tax dollars...i.e., there is somebody in the universe interested enough in my inchoate rantings to watch me. It should be some gubermint dweeb - gives him a job and something for me to rant about...win-win. Of course, If I had to watch me, I would demand extra pay to endure viewing such a vile and disgusting entity as myself.

  • ||

    Those cameras would make great targets for shotguns, if they had an gun rights in the UK.

    The most frightening parts is that most people don't even notice or give a damn as their rights & privacy slip away.

    American who actually care about privacy rights and keeping government in its proper place are looked upon as loons or even potential terrorists! Yeah, terrorists who think the Constitution should be not be used as a substitute for toilet paper!

  • ||

    RC Dean and John, I wish you many, many computer viruses. Assholes.

    (But also yes, cheers to Jakob Sullum for reminding me of the fundamental fact that the bigger the government gets, the more incompetent it gets. But Britain still scares me to death.)

  • abercrombie milano||

    My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I'm sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won't get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there's more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp.

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