Opinion

British officials take the modern surveillance state to the next level

In the 2005 movie “V for Vendetta,” the authoritarian British government has the ability to listen in on the conversations its citizens have inside their homes, at pubs and at other locations as they go about their daily lives. Security officials can then present the findings, including chatter concerning the mysterious protagonist “V,” to the leader of the regime. George Orwell described a similarly invasive surveillance society in “1984.”

Governments in the real world of 2011 may not yet be in a position to implement the panoptic societies depicted in these fictitious accounts, but the City of Oxford, England is doing its best — and in so doing, it is taking the modern surveillance state to a new level.

Our friends across the pond are well-known for their love of closed-circuit television (CCTV). In London alone there are more than 1 million cameras recording the every move of many millions of residents and visitors alike. Despite the less-than-stellar record this camera system enjoys at preventing or solving crime, the number of cameras continues to grow. The wide-reaching arms of Big Brother are now moving into private taxi cabs.

Oxford officials are requiring some 650 taxis to be fitted — at taxpayer expense — with cameras that will record the voices of drivers and the conversations of fare-paying passengers. According to The Daily Mail, city officials are defending this latest invasion of personal privacy by claiming the audio-visual cameras are needed to deal with and solve complaints ranging from overcharging customers to attacks on taxi drivers.

Even after the fare-paying passenger exits the cab, the cameras will continue to record, and will do so for 30 minutes even after the taxi’s ignition has been turned off. Images and voice recordings will be maintained and available to the authorities for 28 days.

Nick Pickles of the U.K.-based organization Big Brother Watch explained that city officials have been unable to provide crime statistics to justify the use of CCTV in city-based cabs. Pickles writes, “This is a staggering invasion of privacy, being done with no evidence, no consultation and a total disregard for civil liberties. Big Brother now has big ears, and they are eavesdropping on your conversations with absolutely no justification.”

City officials, however, dismiss such concerns with the claim that the taxicab companies have nothing to complain about, because, after all, when a company “buy[s] the taxi and license [they] submit to a regulatory regime.”

Oxford is not the first municipality in the U.K. to implement such an invasive surveillance system. Back in 2009, Southampton implemented a similar system.

Surprisingly, as a result of a lawsuit filed by the owner of an affected cab company, the audio-visual camera mandate has been at least temporarily stymied. Judge Anthony Callaway noted that the inside-the-cab snooping requirement showed “insufficient regard to the respective rights of both passengers and drivers.” According to The Daily Echo, Callaway also wrote, “Big brother is always watching and never switches off. I think there is no difference in them installing them in taxis and their council houses.”

If modern British history is any guide, however, government authorities will continue to press the surveillance envelope. And, considering the degree to which many American government officials — notably New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg — fawn over the advances in government surveillance by their British colleagues, it is likely that similar mandated efforts will not be long in coming to the New World.

Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He provides regular commentary to Daily Caller readers.