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Sunday, 6 September 2009

Think tank: Be warned, Big Brother, I’ve got my eye on you

Matthew Elliott begins a campaign against our surveillance state

In June, Stewart Smith, who suffers from arthritis, was handed a £50 fixed penalty notice after dropping a £10 note in the street. Last year Gareth Corkhill, a father of four, had to pay £225 and got a criminal record when magistrates found him guilty of leaving the lid of his wheelie bin open by a mere four inches. Last month Stephen White’s sister Helen was rung several times and visited at her house by police officers wanting to know the whereabouts of her trainspotter brother, who had been using her car while taking pictures of trains in Pembrokeshire.

What is going on? Over the past 10 years our government has become increasingly overbearing, creating a nation of criminals out of good British citizens. We are subject to ever more officious laws and intrusive means of surveillance. Britain has 1% of the world’s population but about 20% of its CCTV cameras; it has one camera for every 14 people in the country. Last year local authorities, the police and the intelligence services made 504,073 requests to access private e-mail and telephone data — that is nearly 10,000 requests every week.

Documents leaked earlier this year revealed that GCHQ, the government’s spy centre, had already awarded £200m to suppliers as part of Mastering the Internet, a mass surveillance project designed to enable the monitoring of all internet use and phone calls in Britain.

An Englishman’s home is no longer his castle: some 266 laws now grant the state the right to enter private homes. And if they can’t get you on tape, online or in your home, in recent months a slew of websites has appeared encouraging citizens to shop people dropping litter or acting suspiciously. Just as in Orwell’s dystopia, Britain is being turned into a nation of narks.

It is time to fight back. The TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA) has already led the field in exposing the outrageous waste of taxpayers’ money and malpractice throughout all levels of government. Our campaigns on MPs’ expenses, the growth of the quango state and the rise of public sector fat cats have helped to shape public opinion and the policies of both the government and opposition. Now we are launching Big Brother Watch as a check on the surveillance state.

The campaign will be headed by Alex Deane, a barrister and David Cameron’s first chief of staff, supported by Dylan Sharpe, Boris Johnson’s press officer for his London mayoral campaign.

Big Brother Watch plans to produce regular investigative research papers on the erosion of civil liberties in the UK, beginning with a detailed investigation of the ways in which individual local authorities have encroached upon the lives of the ordinary British citizen, whether it be placing microchips in rubbish bins or snooping on your private telephone records. We will name and shame the local authorities most prone to authoritarian abuses.

We will also champion individual cases. We want to use the legal system to help the man in the street fight injustice and regain his personal freedom. We are building up a legal fund to back cases in which we feel a key principle is at stake.

Not many people realise they can use the Freedom of Information Act to demand to see data held about themselves by the authorities. The Human Rights Act, which came into force in 2000, makes it unlawful for any public body to act in a way that is incompatible with the European convention on human rights. The convention includes the right of access to documents and we want to help people to use this and other provisions to extend our right to government information.

In the same way that the TPA has pioneered the use of the Freedom of Information Act to bring transparency to government spending and expose the full horrors of the wastage, wages and expenses of our public representatives, we intend to unearth the reality of the Big Brother state.

Last year the TPA produced a report that put the total cost of Big Brother government at about £20 billion — or almost £800 per household. We want Big Brother Watch to become the central hub for the latest on personal freedom and civil liberty — a forum for information and discussion on something that directly affects British citizens in their everyday lives.

Big Brother Watch also aims to expose the extent to which the web has become the first line in state surveillance. Recent examples of web companies being leant on to release personal data have opened the floodgates for the co-opting of internet activity into the state’s control. Safeguards are needed before it’s too late.

We hope Big Brother Watch will become the gadfly of the ruling class, a champion for civil liberties and personal freedom — and a force to help a future government roll back a decade of state interference in our lives.

Matthew Elliott is chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance and founder of Big Brother Watch (