BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 February 2008, 12:50 GMT
Bug row raises 'Big Brother' questions
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

The bugging of a government whip as he visited a prisoner has caused much offence in Westminster and sparked a major political row.

Sadiq Khan
Sadiq Khan's case may lead to wider changes
Justice Secretary Jack Straw is facing Tory claims he is incompetent and has lost control of his department.

And questions have been raised over whether long-standing conventions banning the covert surveillance of MPs have been breached.

Until now, however, there has been no comparable furore over the revelation that there are some 250,000 requests a year for individual citizens' data, such as phone records, from a welter of public bodies including councils chasing fly tippers, parking fine dodgers and the like.

Or that the home secretary issued 1,333 "bugging" warrants over a nine month period in 2006.

Thanks to the MP bugging storm, that wider debate around what has been dubbed "Big Brother Britain" is now emerging.

It has already seen demands for a reappraisal of the way the police, security services and some 800 public bodies, can "snoop" on citizens.

Nook and cranny

As far as the Sadiq Khan affair is concerned, there remains great confusion in Westminster over whether the operation broke a long standing convention, the Wilson doctrine, which only banned the bugging of MPs phone calls and made no mention of eavesdropping.

And there is some sympathy for the argument that the police and security services need to carry out such operations in the continuing fight against terrorism - so long as there is proper oversight and control.

Jack Straw
Justice Secretary Jack Straw is accused of losing control
That issue of oversight has seen justice secretary Jack Straw accused of losing control of his own department after it emerged some of his officials had been aware of the operation but failed to tell him.

It is a controversy that will continue to batter Mr Straw and other ministers, but the affair has also given fresh impetus to the campaign being waged against the alleged spread of surveillance into every nook and cranny of British society.

Civil liberties groups, often with the backing of the Tory and Liberal Democrat parties, have long been arguing there has been a gradual, unchallenged growth in such surveillance to the point where it is threatening individual liberty.

And only a week ago the annual report by the Interception of Communications Commissioner, Sir Paul Kennedy - who has, coincidentally, called for the Wilson doctrine to be abandoned - gave an insight into the scale of the issue.

It is already widely believed that Britain has more CCTV cameras than any other country in the so-called free world.

Phone records

But Sir Paul's report also pointed out that it is no longer just the police, MI5, MI6, GCHQ and the Serious Organised Crime Agency who seek to eavesdrop, or snoop on individuals communications.

The Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise and the Food Standards Agency, amongst others, can request communication intercepts - bugs - as well as emails and telephone records.

Those were the 1,333 warrants signed by the home secretary in nine months in 2006.

Local councils cannot ask for individuals to be bugged, but they can ask for data, including phone records and emails.

And they have been widely used in attempts to catch fly tippers, rogue traders and fine dodgers.

Although Sir Paul also recorded that many are never put to use and warned if that continued to be the case the power might have to be reviewed.

Meanwhile there is the ongoing political row over ID cards amid growing claims the government has effectively kicked the issues into the post-election long grass.

The Information Commission Richard Thomas has warned of the dangers of "sleepwalking" into a surveillance society, a subject which the influential Commons Home Affairs committee is currently looking into.

So it appears that once the immediate row over bugging of MPs has calmed, the fallout may well lead to that long demanded review of "Big Brother Britain".

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific