Fail to clean up after your dog, get spied on by the state
In 2008, Jenny Paton became the target of a covert surveillance operation. Police obtained her telephone billing records, and for more than three weeks, she was secretly followed.
Is Paton an international drug czar? Or, perhaps, the leader of a gang?
No. The resident of Poole, England is a 40-year-old mother of three, who was erroneously accused of falsifying her address to get her daughter into their neighborhood school. In Britain, a country ranked in the bottom five countries for its record on privacy and surveillance, on a par with Singapore, in a 2007 report by Privacy International, this kind of spying is considered legal.
The Poole Borough Council, the governmental body in charge of Paton’s area where she lives with her partner and their children, says it has done nothing wrong. Legally speaking, they’re correct. “Under [RIPA, or the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act] enacted in 2000 to regulate surveillance powers, it is legal for localities to follow residents secretly,” reports The New York Times. “Local governments regularly use these surveillance powers — which they “self-authorize,” without oversight from judges or law enforcement officers — to investigate malfeasance like illegally dumping industrial waste, loan-sharking and falsely claiming welfare benefits.”
However, local governments also use the law to crack down on the outrageous crimes of noise pollution, failing to recycle or put trash out at the correct time, selling fireworks without licenses, and allowing one’s dog to bark too loudly and/or refusing to pick up dog shit. This reminds me of the X-Files episode where rule-obsessed zealots of a gated community unleash a monster called the “Ubermenscher” on any resident who uses unauthorized lawn decorations.
“Does our privacy mean anything?” Paton said in an interview. “I haven’t had a drink for 20 years, but there is nothing that has brought me closer to drinking than this case.”
Who could blame her? Having the Ubermenscher British police state tailing one’s every move is enough to drive even the most saintly person over the edge.
RIPA gives 474 local governments and 318 agencies powers once held by only a handful of law enforcement and security service organizations. Under the law, the localities and agencies can “film people with hidden cameras, trawl through communication traffic data like phone calls and Web site visits and enlist undercover ‘agents’ to pose, for example, as teenagers who want to buy alcohol,” according to the Times.
But maybe Paton was just an extreme example of a “citizen gone mad.” Surely, this doesn’t happen a lot, right?
In a report this summer, Sir Christopher Rose, the chief surveillance commissioner, said that local governments conducted nearly 5,000 “directed surveillance missions” in the year ending in March and that other public authorities carried out roughly the same amount.
Yeesh. That’s a lot of people who hate picking up dog shit.
The Poole Borough Council insists that their covert surveillance operations are necessary. For example, the council used it to detect and prosecute illegal fishing in Poole Harbor. I guess people like Jenny Paton are just necessary collateral damage in the righteous quest to cut down on illegal fishing and trash pick-up irregularities.
Due to public rumblings over all the shady spying, the British Home Office announced in the spring that it would review the legislation to make it clearer what localities should be allowed to do.
However, to be fair to the Poole Council, there was really no other way they could have determined if Paton was innocent, or guilty.
“If they’d wanted any information, they could have come and asked,” says Paton.
Oh. Paton says she would have explained that her case was complicated — her family was moving from their old house within the school district to a new one just outside it. But they met the residency requirements because they were still living at the old address when school applications closed.
That…may have saved a lot of time and money. Huh.
At one point, one of the officials creepily told Paton, “You go and tell your friends that these are the powers we have.” Jawohl, Mein Führer!
When Paton later wanted some clarification — like if she would now have a permanent criminal record — she was ignored. “They said my privacy wasn’t intruded on because the surveillance was covert.” So there you go. The state has done absolutely nothing wrong as long as they operate in total secrecy.
Before any smug Americans start thumbing their noses at the British, let’s remember that the U.S. has also been known to have its own share of creepy extrajudicial spying programs. But much like Americans, British citizens either don’t know much about these covert programs, or are too intimidated to challenge the state’s authority to spy on them. As a result, the spying continues.