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Commentary Last Updated: Apr 12th, 2007 - 01:50:22

Big Brother meets the nanny state
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Apr 12, 2007, 01:48

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Imagine a land where disembodied voices emanating from CC-TV cameras bark orders at suspicious-looking passersby and where your image can be captured up to 300 times a day. In this land citizens carry biometric ID cards packed with personal information, drive cars fitted with GPS systems accessible by government bodies, and are slapped with a fine should they dare to light up after a meal in a restaurant.

This is a land where smokers may be refused life-saving operations and the overweight fertility treatments, where obese children risk being taken from their parents and put into state care and naughty children are confined to their neighbourhoods under a government ASBO (anti-social behaviour order).

Here, people�s spending habits are analysed and the resultant data sold to potential profiteers. Supermarket loyalty cards retain information on individuals� purchases. Patients� medical histories are stored on a central database available to authorised interested parties.

Information on the travelling public is computerised and submitted to foreign government agencies. Passengers are forced to literally bare all in front of an X-ray machine.

The DNA of individuals is regularly harvested and banked for the use of intelligence agencies and law enforcement. Offenders on probation are electronically tagged and subjected to restriction of movement.

Terrorist suspects can be held for 28 days without being charged and foreigners can be imprisoned indefinitely at the Home Secretary�s pleasure. Evidence gleaned from the use of torture and illegal phone taps is admissible in court.

Telephone calls and emails are tracked and mobile network operators respond to over 400,000 requests for details concerning their customers� private calls.

Welcome to Britain circa 2010. Much of the above is already in place.

Britons are already subjected to more surveillance than any industrialised Western nation, according to the Surveillance Studies Network.

Whatever happened to the concepts of personal liberty and privacy? This is a horror film in the making: �Big Brother Meets the Nanny State.� It�s surely ironic that Britons fought for their freedom in the First and Second World Wars and are merrily -- perhaps unknowingly -- giving it up on the illusionary altar of safety and security.


It�s paradoxical too that the British government is involved in spreading �freedom� abroad at a time the British people are facing ever more restrictions on their own liberty. Some of those restrictions are excruciatingly petty. If you�ve ever been to Boots and been interrogated when you�ve attempted to purchase more than one bottle of cough syrups to take back to the Mideast, you�ll understand what I mean.

Banking is another area where Big Brother has stuck his nose. In Britain, people�s bank accounts are regularly frozen until the account holder identifies himself in person to the satisfaction of the bank.

Britons abroad are particularly vulnerable to this war on terrorism requirement, which apparently is not mandated by law but rather �an initiative.�

A friend who lives part of the year in France was recently forced to make the journey to London for the express purpose of releasing her funds and needless to say she promptly moved her account across the Channel.

Another friend based in south Wales was cross-examined by a bank teller, half his age, when he tried to withdraw 10,000 quid to buy a second-hand car.

And the days when personal finances were the sole province of customer and banker are long gone. For five years, the Belgian-based banking cooperative SWIFT (The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) transferred details of people�s financial dealings to the US Treasury, violating European data-protection laws.

When exposed by the US media, the Belgian prime minister said he wouldn�t force SWIFT to quit this unorthodox practice and said access to such information is crucial to the successful tracking of terrorist funds.

My own sense of outrage is far from being mirrored in Britain. The majority of British people have waved goodbye to the notion of privacy and have readily accepted the idea of CC-TV cameras and ID cards as worthwhile security tools.

A market trader was asked for her view following the 7/7 attacks on London�s transport system and she said without blinking that she�s willing to give up liberty for security.

Moreover, the King�s Fund, an independent think-tank, polled the British public in 2004 and discovered people actually wanted government intervention to improve the health of the nation with 72 percent wanting laws to limit salt, fat and sugar in foods and 73 percent wanting an end to the advertising of junk foods. At one time a �fat tax� on cakes and biscuits was mooted but never got off the ground.

Ever wondered why almost 6 million Britons, 10 per cent of the population, live abroad and why, according to a 2006 Institute for Public Policy Research survey some 54 percent of the UK public has contemplated following suit?

As someone who grew up in London during the 1960s, when privacy and freedom of the individual to do their thing without harming others were enshrined in the public psyche, I abhor the direction in which my country is headed.

My compatriots would do well to bear in mind the words of civil rights activist Florynce Kennedy, �Freedom is like taking a bath -- you have to keep doing it every day.�

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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