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A ‘back to the future’ nightmare

18 November 2009

Have we learnt anything from the fall of the Berlin Wall, Trevor Barnes wonders

HOW we cheered when the fire­works exploded over Berlin, and the symbolic dominoes tumbled, to mark the moment 20 years ago when the Wall was breached. How we applauded as we recalled the people of the then German Democratic Re­public taking their first steps into freedom for generations. And how we remem­bered, with a shudder, the totalitarian nightmare of control and surveillance the East German state had imposed on its citizens for more than 30 years. Gone, we thought: all gone.

But not so. For surveillance seems to be in vogue once again, and any redundant Stasi opera­t­ives hankering after the good old days might just be looking towards the UK for a new range of employment opportunities.

Goodness knows, we are going to need people with experience to carry out the Government’s latest strategy designed to prosecute the ongoing “war on terror”. Just how many people it will take to monitor all our phone calls, sift through all our text messages, and open all our email corres­pondence has not yet been announced by the Home Office. But the fact that this blanket sur­veillance is to become routine certainly has. As has the cost — some £2 billion over ten years.

If recent proposals become law, all telecom companies and all internet service-providers will be required to keep a record of every dot and comma of our communications, and to make them available to no fewer than 650 public bodies, in­clud­ing your local council.

If that is not scary, it is hard to imagine what is. Imagine if those casual asides, bits of gossip, ill-considered comments, drunken ramblings, ironies, exaggerations — jokes, for Pete’s sake — that we had dispatched in confidence to a friend by email were to be dutifully transcribed by some po-faced literalist with one eye on targets and the other on promotion. Imagine, too, if, by stupidity or malice, the said literalist deemed it appropriate to pass on his or her vague suspicions to the social services or the police.

Of course, we shall have to brace ourselves for the inevitable official reassurances that such measures are needed to keep track of would-be terrorists, and, more menacingly, that if we have nothing to hide we have nothing to fear.

Oh, but we have. And two recent cases illus­trate the possible shape of things to come.

Mary Cooke, a pregnant woman from Newcastle-under-Lyme, invited a police officer into her home last month after a speeding car had narrowly missed knocking her down. Among the particulars the keen-eyed officer took down was the fact that her house was only partly decor­ated, a detail taken to suggest that this was the abode of a potentially unfit mother.

The suspicions were passed to the council, which in turn sent out a letter of concern about the well-being of Ms Cooke’s unborn child. A letter that will, no doubt, remain on file for years to come.

Consider next the unnamed woman from Southampton who, having reprimanded her children for their unreasonable and disruptive behaviour at a supermarket, was followed home by an off-duty police officer, and subsequently interrogated by police, who then reported her to the social services.

I cannot recall an instance of an off-duty police officer trailing a known career criminal, local tough, dangerous-dog owner, or suspected knife-carrier with the same vigour. But I digress. No action was taken against this perfectly law-abiding woman, but the council made it clear that the information gleaned would inevitably stay “on record”.

Now, imagine by what factor such damaging accusations would increase if a nationwide sur­veillance agency were to be granted the licence to snoop on the country’s citizens. It is enough to make one wonder how heartfelt those cheers really were when the Berlin dominoes fell, and, more troublingly, whether the paranoid insanity of the Stasi is poised to make a comeback.

Trevor Barnes is a religious-affairs reporter for the BBC.

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