Wednesday, 3 July 2013


Citizen spies are a characteristic of totalitarian regimes, past and present.  It is estimated that one in seven of the population of the East German Communist state  was an informant for Stasi, the secret police force.  Citizen spies were also widely used in the old Soviet Union and are still an important element of state control in Cuba.  They are also favoured in fundamentalist Islamic states like Iran.

Citizen spies have now arrived in the U.K. and the U.S.  In the U.K., which once again is leading the way to the new “benign” police state, councils across the country have recruited thousands of ‘citizen snoopers’ to report so-called ‘environmental crime’.   These citizen spies are called Street Champions. The environmental crimes are not ones being committed by steel mills or chemical plants.  The target of the Street Champions are dog foulers, litter louts and neighbours who fail to sort their rubbish properly.  Other reportable matters include graffiti, litter, abandoned vehicles, fly–tipping and other anti-social behaviour that can supposedly affect the quality of life in an area.

The Street Champions are described  as the ‘eyes and ears’ of their neighbourhoods and are encouraged to take photos of ‘environmental crime’ and send them in with location details for a rapid response.  They are given hand-held GPS computers for the task or phone cards to cover the cost of using their own devices.  It is contemplated that evidence gathered this way will be used in criminal prosecutions. 

Typical of the evils which will be reported by the UK’s citizen spies is fly-posting.  This dreaded crime is defined as the display of advertising material on buildings and street furniture without the consent of the owner.  It can appear in many different forms including photocopied advertisements for local events. These may advertise garage (car-boot) sales or lost animals. They may be attached to light posts, railings and street benches or pasted on buildings. 

While the UK concentrates on evil fly-posters Homeland Security officials in the U.S.  are enlisting citizens as spies for the state by encouraging them to use a new app which allows smartphone users to attach pictures of “suspicious” vehicles or persons and send them directly to the federal government.  Its Delaware Information and Analysis Center (DIAC) now offers a mobile app to report suspicious activities in real-time by attaching a photo, sending location information, or entering details about suspicious vehicles or persons.  Users can choose to make their report anonymously or can include contact information for follow-up by law enforcement,” reports. 

In a 38 page report the American Civil Liberties Union observes that the state is recruiting individuals to serve as "eyes and ears" for the authorities while at the same time companies are being pressured to voluntarily provide consumer information to the government.  There are many ways security agencies can force companies to turn over sensitive information under federal laws such as the Patriot Act and to participate in watch list programs and in systems for the automatic scrutiny of individuals' financial transactions.  Government spy agencies are also increasingly using data mining programs like the MATRIX state information-sharing program and are purchasing information from private-sector data aggregators. Jay Stanley, Communications Director of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Program noted "The amount of direct surveillance that government security agencies can conduct, and the number of people they can hire, will always be limited.  But leveraging the private sector vastly expands the government's capacity to invade our lives."   The American Civil Liberties Union calls this the Surveillance-Industrial Complex. 

Big city cops in the U.S. are also advocating for a new system of "citizen watch" programs - allegedly to help them spot hidden terrorists - but really to report any so-called crime including alleged acts of bullying.  New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights compels the reporting of so-called acts of bullying - firstly to school authorities and secondly to the police.   In East Hanover, new Jersey schools lunch-line bullies can be reported to the police by their classmates through anonymous tips to the Crimestoppers hot line.  Crimestoppers will accept anonymous text messages, calls or tips to its Web site and then forward the information to school and local police officials. 

One so-called anti-bullying website chillingly advocates for ubiquitous surveillance: “Bullies are everywhere! Due to spy gadgets, like spy video cams and voice recorders, it has now become easier to gather hard evidence against those bullies. Children, as well as adults, can be victims of bullying, or can themselves be the bullies. Bullying can happen anywhere, at school, on the bus, at work, at the park, or even on the street. Proof, is the only way to catch them, but was previously difficult to obtain. Thanks to spy equipment, it is now possible to expose those bullies for who they really are, so they can be dealt with appropriately!”

Citizen spies in East Germany were used to keep watch on people who were non-conformist or had anti-state tendencies or were ideological dissidents.  This was done usually under the guise of looking for foreign based intrigues.  In the new police state the ostensible targets are the “terrorists” but the much more likely targets are people who might engage in disapproved social behavior. In other words the citizen spy will be used as an instrument of social policing. 

The term “social policing” describes the policing of interactions between people which do not involve violence or the threat of violence or the wrongful taking of property.  Examples of such interactions include bullying where violence or the threat of violence is absent and harassment where the character off the harassment is psychological rather than physical.  In the U.K., in particular, it extends to putting up political posters on lamp posts or making insulting comments to others or not doing recycling duties properly or to rowdiness on the streets or, for youth, just hanging out on the streets.  The citizen spies will be recording these unacceptable behaviours and will be busy taking pictures with their phones or using their state provided apps to report to the nearest police station.

The English speaking world will probably not rival Communist East Germany for the sheer number of citizen spies but with all the additional surveillance instruments available to authorities from CCTV systems to drones to big data analysis, it won’t matter.  A limited number of citizen spies will suffice for the control purposes of the new police state. 

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