Monday, April 28, 2008


I'm not usually a stickler for privacy. When people freak out over people tapping phones without warrants, or covertly checking out someone's library record, I usually shrug. It's not that I don't think that these things could be taken out of context and used to build a case against someone who doesn't deserve it, but I guess I have a naive faith in the justice system and assume that if such a thing happened, it would be unpleasant but the truth would prevail. There just seem to be bigger things to worry about, and frankly, my list of library books or transcripts of my phone conversations would most likely either bore anyone paying attention.

That said, I was definitely concerned about a story on Morning Edition last Monday in which Vicki Barker reported on schools in London using surveillance camera data to figure out whether someone actually lived in the school district as they claimed. (And tracking under-age smoking, along with other minor crimes.) There are a few things about this privacy breach that put this in another class for me, and I don't know which is the one that upsets me the most:
  1. The information is not going to affect national security; is it really necessary to use subversive means to obtain it?
  2. There are other easy ways to get the information (ask for phone records, utility bills, or even ask neighbors).
  3. They asked parents for private information in order to even make use of the surveillance camera data (like car license plates) but didn't tell them what that information would be used for.
  4. The footage is video footage, which somehow seems more intrusive than text.

Either way, I'm befuddled as to how this tracking was done. I've often heard reports that even though London has an insane number of video cameras (one for every 14 people) that capture every street, it's so expensive or time consuming to retrieve a particular camera's footage that even when crimes such as car theft or muggings could be solved with it, they don't bother to get the footage out. Add that to the fact that I was unaware that video software was good enough to truly track a particular car, and the fact that I don't know how the information that your car goes from place to place is a perfect indicator that you live in a particular area, and I become really confused, and concerned.

It sounds like a few people are starting to sue and protest this behavior, although they're not getting very far. Britain's Information Commissioner warned people a few years ago that they were, "sleepwalking their way into a surveillance society". I can't help but agree - to me this type of surveillance steps way past the slippery slope and may just hit the chasm below.

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