NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


May 22, 2009

In Britain, Prime Minister Gordon Brown's government is working on a plan to monitor every phone call, Website visit, text message and email in the country, entering the information into a vast database that would be used to catch terrorists, pedophiles and scam artists.  But according to British journalist Ross Clark, the Brits want their privacy. 

In his new book, "The Road to Big Brother," Clark determines that the cost of invasive surveillance is not worth paying:

  • In Britain, the evidence that the government's cameras are good at deterring or detecting crime is thin.
  • Likewise, huge collections of information gleaned from private sources such as phone companies, banks and credit bureaus are apt to be unmanageable and rife with errors.
  • Additionally, high-tech systems that seem at first to be outrageous invasions of privacy turn out to be outrageous boondoggles that don't succeed at their official goals and actually get in the way of catching the bad guys.

Moreover, Clark finds that complaints by citizens are more easily ignored than analogous complaints in the United States, where the Fourth Amendment prevents the executive branch from unilaterally changing the rules that limit government snooping.

Yet, there is much that Americans can learn from the British experience with surveillance, says Jacob Sullum, of Reason magazine.

Take all those cameras:

  • So far in the United States, they have been limited to detecting traffic violations, and although they have generated heated debate, the main concern has to do with whether they reduce or increase accidents and whether municipalities are sacrificing public safety for the sake of revenue.
  • But there is no constitutional barrier to erecting surveillance cameras throughout the United States -- provided they focus only on public areas.
  • Looking and listening from a distance does not change the constitutional question.

Source: Jacob Sullum, "The State of Surveillance," Wall Street Journal, May 21, 2009; based upon: Ross Clark, "The Road to Big Brother," Encounter, 2009.


Browse more articles on Government Issues