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Big Brother spies on Britain

AFP

In Britain, Big Brother really is watching you almost everywhere, according to civil liberties campaigners alarmed by the proliferation of spying machines in trains, buses, high streets, sports stadiums and perhaps soon even in clothes.

"In terms of western democracies, we are by far and away the most spied-upon nation," Mark Littleton, second in command at citizens' rights group Liberty, told AFP.

One camera for every two adults

Britain is already home to 10 percent of the entire world's close circuit television (CCTV) cameras. By 2007 it will have 25 million of them - one for every two adults in the country - Liberty says, quoting industry forecasts.

Some visitors to British shopping centres might feel reassured to know that they and fellow shoppers' movements are being tracked by CCTV.

It was thanks to a security camera that the young killers of two-year-old James Bulger in Liverpool in 1993 were traced. Bulger's horrific murder and the gruesome deaths of other children since have left a deep scar on the nation's psyche and some parents could feel less anxious knowing their offspring's movements may now be easier to trace.

But how many in the country are aware of just how often their own movements are tracked by roadside speed cameras, new travel passes and satellites?

The introduction of electronic tollgates designed to curb the number of cars coming into London's crowded streets has led to the installation of around 800 cameras to catch motorists who do not pay their daily five-pound (seven-euro, nine-dollar) "congestion charge".

Across the country there are a further 5000 police traffic radars, set up to catch overhasty drivers, and their number is increasing. At this rate, there could be more than 20 000 within 10 years, according to Edmund King, executive director of the prestigious Royal Automobile Club (RAC).

In London, the public transport service is upgrading its ticketing system, introducing electronic smartcards which it hopes will be easier to use than paper tickets, while simultaneously cutting down on fare jumpers and inspectors.

Infringements on privacy?

But civil liberties groups say the new Oyster Card could lead to infringements of privacy when it comes into effect in late 2004. The electronic chip in every card means the expected three million users can be instantly localised, every time they get on or off a bus or underground train, whether they want to be or not.

Other projects with ostensibly laudable aims will also increase surveillance of the public's movements.

In October a think tank close to the centre-left Labour government came up with a plan to better control air pollution by imposing higher taxes on motorists who use their cars in the rush hour or bottleneck zones.

It involves equipping vehicles with devices so they - and obviously their drivers - can be tracked by satellite.

Retailer have their own little plan

But one of the most insidious spying schemes is a plan Liberty says has been dreamt up by Britain's giant retailers.

The group says high street chains like Marks & Spencer and Tesco are pioneering the use of tiny microchips, which are inserted into the packaging of goods or sewn into the labels of clothes.

"Supermarket executives would love to be able to track every item of clothing we bought. It would enable them to build up customer profiles, which they would use for specific marketing campaigns," Liberty's director, Shami Chakrabarti, wrote on the association's website.

"Some customers will be comfortable with this, others will consider it a gross infringement of privacy. The important point is that the technology is too powerful to be unregulated," the trained legal advisor said.

"If anyone had told me two years ago that we would soon be in a position where it would be normal for many of us to be under 24-hour a day surveillance, I would have told them not to be ridiculous. But now it looks like happening."
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