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Last Updated: Friday, 1 August, 2003, 09:08 GMT 10:08 UK
Is Britain too secretive?
Thousands of phone calls are tapped every day in Britain by MI5, police and private investigators.

The government has hailed the Freedom of information Act 2000 as heralding a new, more open approach to the information held by the state. Critics, however, say the Act gives ministers too much power to withhold information.

It seems easier than ever for police, security services and even private individuals to spy on us, and harder for us to work out if we are being bugged and if so by whom and for what reason.

Have you ever suspected your home or office has been bugged or your phone tapped by the police, MI5 or maybe a spouse or an employer? Tell us about your battles with officialdom over secrecy.


This debate is now closed. Read your comments below.

Your reaction:

The following comments reflect the balance of views we have received:

The level of monitoring we all undergo is getting way out of control
Iain, UK
You only have to look at the EU's concerns about Echelon to realise things aren't quite right. The level of monitoring we all undergo is getting way out of control. We assume it's OK though because we currently 'enjoy' a benevolent government. If any extreme organisation takes control then they have all the infrastructure they need ready and waiting.
Iain, UK

It's too easy for the security services to spy on private individuals using techniques that do not necessarily require warrants. It's fine when spying is limited to individuals or organisations seriously suspected of criminal activity, and where a warrant has been obtained from a judge, but this isn't always the case.
Chris, England

Unfortunately, criminals, the organised crime fraternity and industrial espionage have all contributed to the security paranoia that is spreading. Cyber crime is also on the increase and causes British industry tens of millions of pounds a year. My company works closely with many organisations, including industry and Government, assisting them to develop the necessary security procedures and policies to ensure their business critical information assets are protected from both internal and external threats. We also conduct "many" electronic eavesdropping countermeasure assignments because in today's extremely competitive environment, competitors will stop at nothing to steal the advantage.
Robert Hay, UK

How can anyone doubt that we live in a secret society
George, UK
How can anyone doubt that we live in a secret society. We are only allowed to find out our own history 30 years after the event and then it can be incomplete. Until those in power are unable to hide their actions (legal and otherwise) from us I'll remain suspicious.
George, UK

There seems to be a common thread to some of these comments along the lines of "I don't mind be spied on if it's for a good cause - anti-terrorism, etc." This show of trust is commendable from the individuals but sadly misplaced. History has shown us that every time a government had been given new powers to "stop and search" or spy on its citizens, that power has been abused. This is to say nothing that if illegal monitoring activities were used to apprehend a suspect, the trial wouldn't even get to the plea entering stage.
Kevin, UK

I object to surveillance (i.e. government/police surveillance) because I haven't committed a crime and I don't like being treated like a criminal - or a potential criminal. This type of invasion of privacy should surely be a violation of my human rights (not to be automatically treated as a criminal). Having said that, I don't think surveillance equipment should be restricted to government organisations only! You will have to ban access to the circuit diagrams and components too BTW.
Michael S, England

We no longer live in a democracy, it's a sham
Kevin, England
Wake up! We no longer live in a democracy, it's a sham. It won't be long before we get new Laws in the UK similar to "The Patriot Act" in the USA. I urge everyone to look at how far reaching this Act is, listen to the people that it has affected so far - you will then realise why I suggest that "real" democracy is dead.
Kevin, England

Until recently it has been the case that simply collecting data has been of limited use due to the logistics of analysing that data. What many people do not realise is that computing power is now more than adequate to store and analyse many millions of pieces of information, for example, movements of vehicles around the country (gathered by various video cameras on most major roads) and flag up vehicles which are travelling out of their normal pattern, in much the same way as the banks sometimes query unusual transactions on an individual account. The much-quoted "if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear" is bunkum. The point is that ALL of us prefer to keep some things private, for all sorts of reasons, and this ability is being eroded at a terrifying rate.
Kate C, England

When I was in the CND as a young man I had some strange experiences with the phone and felt it was bugged but I have no problem with the security services acting in protection of the nation. I do have a problem with Ministers hiding behind the secrets act to avoid justifiable public scrutiny and I believe that this kind of action has become institutionalised in Government and that New Labour have been gutless over the commitment they made to freedom of information.
Keith, England

Being watched by surveillance cameras did not prevent my being attacked in the street
Jo, England and France
Being watched by surveillance cameras did not prevent my being attacked in the street, nor did it prevent my being robbed at my place of work - and there was a camera directly looking into the window of the shop in which I was working at the time. My attackers were not caught even though they were seen by at least two cameras on the street. '9/11' was the result of complacency. It has always been easier to get onto an aeroplane in Americas than it is to get onto a bus in Europe. Britain survived years of IRA terrorism through vigilance on the part of the public, rather than relying upon cameras.
Jo, England and France

I couldn't care less whether they tap my phone or watch my every move or not. If they feel the need to do so then they're watching the wrong person. I've got nothing to hide. I just ignore it and carry on with my life.
Ross, UK

I'm firmly in the camp favouring preventative measures (e.g. visible police) over pure surveillance. Mass surveillance, which might lead to unmanageable quantities of raw data, won't necessarily prevent anything untoward from happening, but as many crime-related TV programmes have shown, it can provide invaluable assistance. Unfortunately, by that time the crime is yet another statistic which kind of defeats the purpose of it being a deterrent.

You can't ask a camera for directions either.
Steve, UK

Do those who think they are being watched really think the government has nothing better to do than listen to their paranoid ramblings?
Neil, England

My liberties are not negotiable with any government
John Sterianos, South Africa (Living in London)
My liberties are not negotiable with any government. I use encrypted e-mail just to let the government know that they won't find out what I am saying even though I am doing nothing wrong. It's the principal that matters.
John Sterianos, South Africa (Living in London)

If information can be misused by government, it will be. Politicians are only interested in power and keeping hold of it. Currently everything is secret unless deemed otherwise (which usually means everything is secret). The emphasis should be the other way around - nothing should be secret unless some named person decrees it is secret - if it subsequently transpires it was kept secret for unjustifiable reasons (like to save embarrassment or cover up an error) it should be compulsory to make it available to the media along with the name of the person who tried to cover it up - so they can face public scrutiny and judgement.
David Elliot, UK

They are not so much secretive as lacking in proper foresight and advanced planning
David Hazel, UK
My impression of the authorities in Britain is that they are not so much secretive as lacking in proper foresight and advanced planning. As an example, consider the situation for anyone whose tax affairs are more complicated than a straightforward PAYE scheme can handle. Very often, it is impossible to get the Inland Revenue to tell you what the precise rules are for each allowance you can claim or each liability you may have. They say they have to assess each case "on its own merits", which is actually bureaucrat-ese for "we don't know what the rules are either, until we have a concrete case to look at". It's not that they are secretive, it's that they often haven't thought through their own rules properly.
David Hazel, UK

Just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean they're not watching you!
John H, UK

If you have ever tried to query an official decision or taken part in a so-called "consultation" exercise you soon come to realise that the Government will ride rough-shod over any argument and do whatever it wants regardless.
Brian W, UK

I used to be of the opinion that if you do nothing wrong you have nothing to worry about. However, an issue like the pensioner in South Africa who was arrested on behalf of the US government was a bit of an eye opener. He had clearly done nothing wrong and the obvious fact that it was a case of mistaken identity was not going to deflect the US from subjecting him to justice.
Steve, UK

The more information is kept and shared, the greater the opportunities for abuse
Richard Gregory, UK
This government has bestowed upon itself vast powers to pry into the affairs of the citizen. Yet it resists anything that permits the citizen access to its own workings. To argue "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" is to assume that the watchers are somehow above the human frailties of those they watch -despite the enormous temptations placed before them. The more information is kept and shared, the greater the opportunities for abuse.
Richard Gregory, UK

I'm going to give up my job and re-train as a psychiatrist. Judging by the level of media fed paranoia expressed in this forum, there's a good living for me out there.
John, England

If the government is serious about reducing secrecy, how about scrapping the 30 year rule?
John, UK/Japan

Free Country? What free Country?
Andrew Taylor, UK
As I travel around Europe I am increasingly concerned that we are one of the most watched "free" populations. Police speed cameras are ubiquitous, as are surveillance cameras in town centres, shops, etc. Moreover, my experience of the interrogation I suffered at the hands of an un-uniformed female immigration office at Eurotunnel recently when trying to leave the UK for another EU country reminded me more of what life must have been like for a Hungarian or Czech having the audacity to want to travel abroad in the dark days of the Cold War! Having escaped the clutches of UK I never had to show a passport or ID again. Free Country? What free Country?
Andrew Taylor, UK

I have no problem with overt surveillance. I feel that it's helped bring down crime in most areas. As for covert, I've got my doubts. The government may watch me to their hearts content while I'm out and about but once my door closes, what I do or say in my own house or on my own phone is entirely my business. I don't pay taxes so that it can be wasted on this sort of nonsense. Ever heard of the saying 'Information is power'? Who gets that power and what is stopping them from abusing it?
Nedine, UK

Why do you all care so much about whether you're watched or not? Why does it matter? Does this stop you living your life and doing what you want (as long as you don't want to do anything illegal)? Or is it just that you all always have to find something to complain about?
Sara Dawson, UK

Surveillance will only ever be able to track normal law-abiding citizens
Dave, UK
Surveillance will only ever be able to track normal law-abiding citizens. Witness speed or congestion cameras; your everyday person gets hammered for the slightest mistake, while the criminal (with unregistered car / false plates) carries on oblivious.
Dave, UK

Interpret Thomas Jefferson in a different way and you would understand that yes - the price of freedom is eternal vigilance and that means watching out for encroachment on our freedoms by our 'keepers'.
Andrew Bartlett, UK

Governments in general are responsible to their citizens and not vice-versa
Oliver, UK
Having moved to this country only a year ago, I am not yet knowledgeable about how this issue applies to the UK. However, I strongly believe that governments in general are responsible to their citizens and not vice-versa. This means that the "burden of proof" regarding any issue that affects the general public a lies with officials, and not with those governed by the laws they create. This principle applies to laws governing access to information as well. The name "Freedom of Information Bill" indicates that this principle currently is reversed, i.e. information is available to the public only after it has been "released". If I am right, that is undemocratic and, above all, dangerous.
Oliver, UK

I think you Brits are a little too wrapped up in conspiracy theories.
Sean, USA

I don't see what the problem is
Dominic Smith, UK
I get confused when people are so against improving detection rates. As long as I am entitled to a trial and live in a democratic country, I don't see what the problem is. It's just making it easier to catch criminals; it doesn't mean I can be throne in jail for not liking Tony Blair. I am all for a national database of everyone's DNA, with my picture and my car registration next to it.
Dominic Smith, UK

All these people who think that the Government is going to be watching them need to get a grip on reality, there are 60 million people in this country making billions of electronic communications every day if there is no way you are going to be spied on without a reason. Even if the government just randomly intercepted messages, you would still have a better chance of winning the lotto jackpot, than be spied on, and the more data that is collected about everyone the smaller the infinitesimal chances of being spied on by accident get. Surely this tiny risk is worth the benefits
Alex, UK

In most cases there's not enough control
Christine, UK
It's funny how in some cases the need to control seems to go overboard, but in most cases there's not enough control. I've lived (legally) in England for almost 7 years and I've not once been asked to register myself or let any authority know that I'm here. I could be a criminal or a terrorist, but nobody's ever thought to question my reasons for being here.
Christine, UK

With Mr Blunkett's obsession with mandatory ID cards, and the "tap-everything, search later" RIP bill, it's clear that this government is obsessed by information in order to control. One has to wonder why - when the government fear the people, you have liberty, when the people fear the government, you have tyranny.
Martin, England, UK

A very handy cover for controversial legislation
Peter, Ireland
The inherent weakness in a system like this has already been demonstrated by Osama bin Laden. It is so heavily dependent on technology that the simple steps of not using e-mail, mobile phones, or writing anything down has meant he is nearly impossible to find. Unfortunately the events of September 11th have been used by certain governments to introduce legislation which is intrusive into the lives of ordinary people. This is usually done under the guise of being important to the 'war on terrorism', a very handy cover for controversial legislation.
Peter, Ireland

If you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to worry about. The people who are opposed to this bill are doing things they should not be doing. If the new bill is introduced and stops a terrorist threat which could save hundreds of lives then it is worth its weight in gold. I wonder, however, if this bill applies to ministers as well. Would they mind if they were 'tapped'?
James, UK

Living in the UK is starting to have overtones of George Orwell's 1984. This must stop now before we go much further down this path. I would continue but I fear Big Brother is listening.
Steve, UK

The UK has a good balance
Duncan, UK
I think the UK has a good balance. If someone wants to listen to me insulting the guy down the street over the phone they can. I don't feel too "watched" and as long as illegal taps are kept to a minimum it won't effect the way I live my life.
Duncan, UK

The big problem seems to be that people don't want the government knowing what they are doing. How important do these people think they are? As someone has already said, I would feel really sorry for anyone who had to listen in on my telephone calls because he would be bored rigid.
Tony, London, England

This country needs total reform with a constitution for the people by the people. No crown immunity and a Freedom of Information Act. Stick that in my file, MI5.
James Clarke, UK

When my wife picked up the phone to dial, she heard her daughter over 150 miles away
John Bartram, England
I took in EFL student, who'd accused his former host's family of theft. The host worked for the security services. Next day, when my wife picked up the phone, to dial, she heard her daughter using her mobile, over 150 miles away, speaking to a friend in a different city. This could only be done by somebody who was monitoring all our family's phones, then made a slip. Fact: Abuse of tapping is commonplace.
John Bartram, England

History shows the "nothing to hide = nothing to fear" argument is pure bunk: 500 years ago it didn't matter how much of a good and loyal subject you were, you could still be burnt at the stake for subscribing to the wrong brand of religion. If you think human nature has improved since then, you're either blind or using some really good drugs.
Phil, UK

It is interesting that the telephone tapping stations, such as Menwith Hill, are programmed to intercept calls based on voice recognition. Once, a sequence of events was set into place after an American was heard on regular phone calls discussing 'bombings'. It turned out to be a funeral service discussing 'embalmings'! Even the technology to tap our calls is, so it seems, not infallible.
Secret Squirrel, UK

We are being tracked alright - not by the elected government - but by the big international retailers and credit card companies. They know what you buy - where, when and with what - so that they can more accurately "target" unwanted advertising and "special offers" - is this not more worrying?
Bob, England

The government works for US. They have no right to listen to my conversations. Who is watching the watchers?
Vish, UK

The fact that hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants seem to evade detection in the UK rather suggests that our security operations aren't all they're cracked up to be.
NK, UK

"The price of freedom is eternal vigilance" - Thomas Jefferson. It is better for the security services to know more than they need to than not to know enough, especially in these times of international terrorist threats. I just feel sorry for anyone who has to listen to other people's phone calls, must be a terribly boring job most of the time.
Alistair, UK

Why not just implant a tracker device and be done with it?
John B, UK
Never mind covert cameras, I find it overbearing enough seeing the number of overt cameras that watch me. Travelling from Waterloo to my job in the City I am watched by half a dozen cameras at Waterloo, then more hidden cameras on the tube, then more cameras at Bank, dozens more during the five minute walk to my office. Driving down the M3 to get away for the weekend sees me watched by apparently endless cameras on posts. Does the government really need to know exactly where I am at all times? Why not just implant a tracker device and be done with it?
John B, UK

John B - most of the cameras around are for your safety and have been put there as a result of some previous disaster or to reduce crime. I presume you think these are all linked to some giant 'matrix' and a man sits observing you all day long. How boring! As 9/11 proved, the most sophisticated governments don't know what all of their citizens are up to. Personally I feel more at danger from pressure groups such as Liberty who are eroding my own personal protection and freedoms with political correctness.
Terry, London, UK

Terry, Terry, London, UK: Interesting that you associate groups like Liberty with 'political correctness'. I would have thought they were one of the organisations furthest from political correctness. Surely the PC lobby actually wants to constantly monitor our lives so that they can find out whether we're daring to do or think anything that conflicts with their world view. Those of us who oppose greater encroachment are certainly not politically correct.
James King, England

The cameras are not there for my safety. They are there because the nosey local councils and police have done a superb job in convincing the gullible British public that it's good to be watched.
Chris Allonby, UK

It will be a pointless bill as no government will allow any information to be released that is self-incriminating. If the tired old line "in the interests of national security", is rolled out every time something of real import is wanted then it is impossible to argue against as we are not allowed access to all available facts to dispute if it actually does impact on national security. Just more spin!
Graeme, UK

It certainly saves lives within my work
John Evans, England
Having an involvement in a part of the security services, (Close Protection), I sincerely believe that the gathering of information is invaluable. It certainly saves lives within my work. From very young children to persons reaching the twilight of their years, collected information has most definitely been invaluable in the saving of lives. If you have nothing to fear then why worry about any information which is collected? I certainly don't!
John Evans, England

John Evans, England: - This is not about whether you have something to fear from the government! It's about whether that government has the right to know every last little thing you do. They do not and when they do freedom in this country will be dead - and it's getting closer.
Anon, UK

Ah yes - that hoary old chestnut again - "if you are innocent you have nothing to fear". Apart from missing the point, it's also utterly wrong. It is precisely the innocent that have something to fear, because they are the ones who will suffer injustice if information is misused. History has shown us this again and again and again.
Katherine, UK

I despise the argument "If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear". It's crass and demonstrates a failure to understand the principles of freedom and liberty - which were fought for and are defined from the state, see Magna Carta and Bill of Rights/Declaration of independence. Yet everyone seems keen to forsake these basic rights because the government says it is fighting for our freedom and liberty. Paradox anyone? If you have nothing to fear then you won't mind all your telephone conversations being taped, all letters and e-mails being read, all conversations recorded and CCTV in every room in the house.
Richard, UK

People are just becoming more aware of the loaded system they live under
Rikk, UK
It's not easier than ever; people are just becoming more aware of the loaded system they live under. The police will never be refused permission to read your mail by the interceptions commissioner. If you have a problem with it, you can take it to the intelligence services tribunal, who will not only fail to uphold it, but if they want, they can make you sign the Official Secrets Act, so when they tell you to go spin, you can't let anyone know about it without risking a jail term. What a wonderful country we live in.
Rikk, UK

There is less and less need for covert surveillance these days. We now have widespread overt surveillance with CCTV cameras which the public themselves have requested in many cases. It is a simple matter to link these with face recognition software and the digitised pictures from photo licences and passports. Add number plate recognition systems and the ability to follow the rail of credit card and cash machine use and Big Brother is really keeping tabs on you. Soon there will be transponder chips in clothing and other goods and our every move will be tracked.
Roger Jackson, England

Yes, the UK is far too secretive. Now that I'm living here in the US, it's easy to spot the difference. Far too much of the work of UK government is kept from the public. It's not perfect on this side of the pond, but it's better. States need reminding that they do not own the people, rather it is the other way around. Unless an issue is truly a matter of national security it should be open to public scrutiny.
Jon Stern, USA (but British)

In the end governments and the security services do as they like
M Dean, New Zealand
In the end governments and the security services do as they like, whether the law permits it or not. There is very little individuals can do about it, the bill is unlikely to change the fact that the UK is one of the most secretive countries in the world - the state not the individual will always come out on top!
M Dean, New Zealand

Britain's chronic official secrecy hampers good governance, and allows the bad to flourish. With very limited exceptions for national security, commercial interests, and the like, all government information should be open to the people of Britain who pay for it.
Ralph, UK

Let's not forget there is usually a good reason behind the secrecy such as a threat to national security. It does seem the lesser of two evils to - for example listening in on a telephone conversations for possible terrorist plan attacks on Britain.
Adam Doran, England

No doubt the freedom of information bill will still allow the government, the police, the military and the civil service to hide those things they find embarrassing or awkward; those things covered under the wider meaning of 'in the interests of national security'.
David, UK

It just seems so typical for Britain to want to keep track on what people are doing. The Freedom of Information Bill will change nothing - it's just a formality that will be exploited by people at the top of government who are above the law.
Nick, Germany

The resources put into this level of secrecy stop useful information being shared
Martin Bryant, Netherlands (expat)
Yes, the UK is far too secretive. The resources that are put into this level of secrecy not only cost a lot but stop useful information being shared. It is also more obvious that illegal activities are going on if they are the only people not freely disclosing information.
Martin Bryant, Netherlands (expat)

Banning or licensing the sale of surveillance devices will not curtail illegal taps. Far better to do something to ensure allegations of bugging are taken more seriously, like tougher sentences. Banning the sale of the equipment will only foster a false feeling of safety from eavesdroppers. Having said that I don't think the problem is that widespread.
D, UK

It's been said that the British Government states the right reasons for its actions, but always act for the real reasons!
Manan, USA

I do not think Britain is too secretive. If surveillance helps prevent terrorism and other crimes then law abiding citizens have little to fear. Such security measures only become dangerous when people suddenly begin to disappear or are imprisoned or executed by the government based on personally held beliefs. Since this is not a common occurrence in the UK nor has been for generations I don't see reasonable government secrecy to be a problem.
Ivan, UK

Interesting article. However, FOI legislation has been in existence for over 20 years in Australia and 11 years in Queensland. As an FOI practitioner I find the article a little too precious. Contrary to what critics might say there are still 'no reds under the bed'.
Gerry Cottle, Australia




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