Friday, August 14, 2009

Spying is good says Sir Christopher Rose

Daily Telegraph letters today included the following:

SIR – It is unfortunate that you repeated (Leading article, August 10) the criticism of local authorities for using their Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act covert surveillance powers against dog fouling. This is, at best, a half truth.

It is unlikely that the use of those powers would be necessary or proportionate in relation to fouling a pavement. But fouling a children’s playground is much more serious, as dog excrement contains a parasite which can cause blindness in children.

I suspect that many people would welcome the use of these powers to reduce that risk.

Sir Christopher Rose
Chief Surveillance Commissioner
London SW1

Check out the signature. Sir Christopher Rose's job is to make sure the large number of agencies who made the more than half million communications intercept requests and engaged in other surveillance activities stay within the law. On the evidence of this letter he brings the wrong sort of enthusiasm to his role, arguing that surveillance by Councils for trivial reasons is absolutely fine. Now, a standard method to try and justify the unjustifiable is to suggest a lurid risk, usually involving children, that can only be mitigated by an extreme but sadly necessary course of action. There are two components to a risk: threat, what might happen, and probability, how likely it is to happen. Because probability is poorly understood by many people, I give you the National Lottery, then the risks can often be wildly overestimated especially when someone wants to support a weak argument. What is the chance of a child going blind from dog excrement? The answer is very, very small. In fact, based on the 2003 figures the chance of someone being diagnosed with the damaging infection at all was a tiny 0.0037%, and many people so diagnosed have only mild symptoms. So, while dog owners clearly should clean up after their pets, this cannot possibly justify the use of covert surveillance. In fact if you use Sir Christopher's line of argument that even a very small chance of public harm justifies spying on the public then all of us should be watched all of the time. Given that is almost what this country has come to he must be pretty happy.

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