UK Liberty

Public doesn’t mind the use of surveillance on criminals

Posted in privacy, surveillance society by ukliberty on February 23, 2009

It seems to me some people are making more of this article than reasonable in terms of “look, this means people support all surveillance” or “this means they support more CCTV”:

The majority of the population supports councils using directed surveillance to tackle crimes such as drug dealing, theft and benefit fraud, a new report claims.

The New Local Government Network (NLGN) survey [direct link to PDF] shows the public supporting some use of spy technology by local authorities – despite many newspaper campaigns against “council snoopers”.

The poll of 300 people showed 64% of people believed it was appropriate for councils to use directed surveillance to tackle drug dealing, whilst 62% felt it was very appropriate for organised crime; 59% for theft and 50% for benefit fraud.

But only 17% of people thought it was appropriate for councils to use the powers set out in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 to check residents were not breaking school catchment rules. …

Local Government Chronicle

I think the last point is the pertinent one.  What the article (and survey) actually says is that the public doesn’t mind surveillance in relation to criminality, but it does mind surveillance of people who might be acting in a ‘bad’ way but not to the extent of criminality.  Context is all, as you might expect.

The sample size seems relatively small. I think the margin of error for that sample size is roughly 5%.  This suggests 12-23% of people think it is appropriate for councils to use RIPA in relation to school catchment areas, 45-55% think surveillance is appropriate in relation to benefit fraud, and so on.  Weirdly it also suggests 43-53% think surveillance is not appropriate in relation to organised crime (or they don’t know / have no opinion)… I would have guessed that a much smaller proportion would think that, if any.

In any case I don’t think the article does justice to the survey, which is actually more detailed than you might infer.

Again, it looks like context is all – which is what I think anyone would have guessed. For example, in relation to dog fouling, people largely approve of CCTV but wouldn’t approve of the interception of emails and phone calls.

The results show strong, majority support for councils being able to use video or photographic recordings to monitor most offences listed, with particularly strong support for taking action against drug dealing, theft and dangerous driving. However, there is much less support for councils using methods more closely associated with the security services, such as phone tapping or having access to personal e-mails.

Also it seems that the public are more inclined to trust a local police officer to be responsible for surveillance than a councillor or council staff, and that the public want detailed records made available of when surveillance was used and what for.

Quite heartening in some respects.



5 Responses

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  1. shadowfirebird said, on February 24, 2009 at 10:52 am

    The trouble is it’s only a small step from “surveillance of criminals is okay” to “surveillance of everyone is okay because we can’t tell in advance which people are criminals”.

    And the arguments that refute that, I suspect, are a bit subtle for some people.

  2. Lee Griffin said, on February 25, 2009 at 10:32 am

    The important thing, shadowfirebird, is that we keep making the distinction for them. Because you’re right, governments will just keep taking small steps when they’ve got the first stage sorted.

  3. shadowfirebird said, on February 25, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    Agreed, although telling a government *anything* is like hunting a Snark, I think. But that’s not quite what I meant.

    Many perfectly nice people with no connection to the government at all seem to have trouble seeing that mass surveillance of all of us is wrong *even if it catches criminals*. This is exactly the sort of argument that it is very difficult for us to win.

    The general public can be persuaded that “loss of liberty” is bad if it means something tangible — for example, wrongful imprisonment, or torture.

    But when it’s something intangible, we are probably on to a loser when trying to get them on our side…

  4. ukliberty said, on February 25, 2009 at 7:15 pm

    Hmm, I don’t know. I’m still quite heartened by the suggestion that people mind surveillance of things that are private, like email – that there is a distinction between private and public.

  5. shadowfirebird said, on February 25, 2009 at 9:26 pm

    I think that perhaps you are trapped by language there. “Public” and “private” are not always opposites in this context.

    I can have a private picnic in public. Or a private conversation.

    It’s these things that CCTV cameras, and the attitude behind them, threaten.

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