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Open Prison

On January 1st, police in Britain were given sweeping new powers. Police are now allowed, if they think it “necessary”, to hold anyone they suspect of any offence - motorists who are not wearing seat belts, for instance, or who commit the felony of driving in a bus lane, or even your young ne’er-do-well who throws his fish supper wrapper away in the street. Moreover, the police will be allowed to store a digital photograph of you on a database even if you have been found not guilty of the charge you were originally arrested for.

The Home Office is changing the law because current legislation on what is an arrestable offence is, they argue, “bewildering”.  So on the one hand you have the Home Office suggesting your average cop is too daft to make his/her mind up as to what is a criminal offence, while at the same time asking the police to make an on-the-spot decision on whether or not it is “necessary” to arrest your average lawbreaker for gobbing his wad of chewing gum onto the pavement.

It’s already bad enough that Britain has more CCTVs spying on us than any other country on the planet (an estimated 300 cameras will have watched me when I get back home after a day’s bargain-hunting in Newcastle), that the British police have the biggest DNA database in the world, that your location can be tracked to within 6 feet when you use your mobile phone. But from this March, almost every car journey made in this country will be logged by CCTV and satellite cameras, and stored away for future reference on a police database.

Terrestrial and space-based cameras make it possible for the state to recognise your car number-plates anywhere you go and, we are told, quite soon they will be able to recognise human faces as well.

With 77 percent of MPs now favouring the introduction of a national identity card and the Identity Cards Bill due another vote in the House of Commons, now that the Lords have made their minor amendments, it looks as if the State - 2008 is when Labour seeks to introduce them - will soon have another means of collecting and collating information about us.

It is anticipated that eventually, as well as carrying our photos, biometric ID cards will hold iris scans and fingerprints. Moreover, the database holding all the information on our ID cards would not only be accessible by the police, but open to the immigration service and numerous public and private organisations.

Forgive me for being alarmist, but I’m betting that in a few years every single adult in Britain will have their mug-shot and their entire personal history on a police database; that the day will come when your movements will be logged the moment you leave your home in the morning.

No doubt people, like me, concerned about increased police powers and increasing state intrusion into our daily affairs will be met with the imbecilic line: “If you’re not doing anything wrong, then you have nothing to worry about.” This cop-out totally misses the point. In truth this has nothing to do with our innocence. It’s all about mistrust; about the state saying we can not trust a single one of you as far as we could kick you. The state is saying you have a brain and are capable of thought, so you are therefore a potential threat to very powerful interests and consequently need to be tracked 24/7. This is the state saying they want to know everything about us from the moment we’re born until the second our heart stops beating.

When you consider the state has access to the NHS database, to info transmitted each time we use credit cards (the spy in your wallet), to info that will be contained on the coming national id cards, the info gleaned at GCHQ in Cheltenham, at the NSA base at Menwith Hill that scrutinises our phone conversations and scans our email, the info amassed by Echelon, perhaps the most powerful intelligence gathering organization in the world and sponsored by the USA and the UK, then it’s time to sit up and start worrying.

Think not? Consider also the introduction of radio-frequency identification tagging (RFID) which started in stock control and on motorway tollgates in the USA. Supermarkets are now using this technology - electronic chips that send out a code when exited - with companies like M&S and Tescos investing millions in this new spy hardware. It is anticipated that soon the chips will be small enough to be undetectable in products such as clothing, the carrier being detectable from space.

Our civil liberties are not only being eroded by the day, but the state is intruding deeper and deeper into our personal lives. You can sit back and accept it all as inevitable in this post-9/11 world and reconcile yourself to a lifetime of mind-numbing conformity, inside of your new open prison - for this is what Britain and many other countries are turning into - never daring to think an out-of-the-place thought about the system that exploits you, afraid you may accidentally commit a “crime” on your way to the shops (some security camera catching you walking on the grass or expectorating a lump of phlegm). Or you can organise with others in an attempt to wrest state control from those who use it as a means of utter oppression on behalf of the master class. But don’t take too long to think about it - your thoughts may one day not be your own.

JOHN BISSETT