Civil Liberties

'They Said My Privacy Wasn't Intruded on Because the Surveillance Was Covert'


After Jenny Paton, a 40-year-old mother of three in Poole, England, tried to enroll her daughter in the neighborhood school, the local education department began spying on her, trying to prove that she had applied under a false address. (She hadn't.) The investigation included an examination of Poole's telephone records and three weeks of secretly following and photographing her and her children—all without court approval. It was perfectly legal under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which gives 474 local governments and 318 agencies in the U.K. the unilateral authority to conduct covert surveillance of anyone they choose. According to the country's chief surveillance commissioner, they do so about 10,000 times a year, often for trivial offenses like failing to recycle , putting trash out prematurely, or owning a noisy dog. Usually the targets are unaware of the snooping; Paton found out about it only after school officials showed her the surveillance report. By her account, "They said my privacy wasn't intruded on because the surveillance was covert."

I considered Britain's "surveillance society" in a Reason book review a few months ago. In 2006 I discussed the U.K.'s bad marks from Privacy International.

[Thanks to Tricky Vic for the tip.]