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Councils Recruit Unpaid Volunteers To Spy On Their Neighbors 521

Several readers have written to tell us that a recent move in the UK has councils relying on info from "Citizen Snoopers" to report the transgressions of their neighbors. Currently only implemented as "environment volunteers" designed to keep watch on things like litter, dog habits, and improper trash sorting, there is a certain amount of trepidation that this could grow into something more sinister. "It will fuel fears that Britain is lurching towards a Big Brother society, following the revelation this week that the Home Office is extending some police powers to council staff and private security guards. Critics said the latest scheme could easily be abused and encourage a culture of bin spies and curtain twitchers. Matthew Elliott, of the Taxpayers' Alliance, said: 'Snooping on your neighbors to report recycling infringements sounds like something straight out of the East German Stasi's copybook.'"
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Councils Recruit Unpaid Volunteers To Spy On Their Neighbors

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  • by Viol8 ( 599362 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @09:49AM (#24829959) Homepage

    I know its fashionable to see the UK government as a bunch of closet dictators , but really this is more about money - or lack of. Rather than it being the beginning of the UKs version of the Stasi its simply a case of the government not wanting to cough up cash for real police so they hope they can fob us off with cut price gimmicks like this. They've already given us the Community Support Officer (the plastic police) which is effectively a policeman with limited powers - and crucially a lower salary , but by getting the curtain twitcher types to report on people they don't have to pay any salary.

    Of course what will happen to a private civilian with no backup or weapons of any sort trying to stop or ticket some 250lb drunk lout with attitude chucking his beer can over a fence is anyones guess...

  • hm (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Brian Gordon ( 987471 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @09:49AM (#24829961)
    Reminds me of the kids in 1984 spying on their parents and reporting on the poor Parsons.
  • Unpaid volunteers (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Errtu76 ( 776778 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @09:50AM (#24829973) Journal

    Isn't voluntary work by definition unpaid?

  • 1984 (Score:3, Insightful)

    by elh_inny ( 557966 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @09:53AM (#24830019) Homepage Journal

    Why is it that UK seems to lead in privacy-crippling, big-brother style techniques?
    All corners covered, CCTV, spying on each other and clearly, there's still no good evidence of any of this wrking twards any good results...

    From my experience, if there are some really bad things happening, neighbour will not report, being too scared.

  • Big Brother (Score:5, Insightful)

    by d3ac0n ( 715594 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @09:54AM (#24830027)

    It will fuel fears that Britain is lurching towards a Big Brother society

    Uh, perhaps some people need to read 1984 again. By the time people start "informing" on one another, Big Brother is already here. "Lurching"? More like "Arrived".

    Britain is lost behind an iron curtain of it's own making.

  • Sad (Score:4, Insightful)

    by upside ( 574799 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @09:55AM (#24830035) Journal

    I think it's sad when people can't behave responsibly without being snooped upon, whether it's the police or neighbours.

  • by dunnius ( 1298159 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @09:59AM (#24830065)
    The police are interested in the smaller crimes that make their area lots of money rather than major crimes that hurt people. In California, they are more interested in people talking on cell phones than actual crimes. I have multiple drug houses in my area and nothing seems to be done about it.
  • Re:Sad (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Nursie ( 632944 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @10:03AM (#24830087)

    i think it's sad that there are legions of people willing to report each other to the authorities over pretty much nothing.

    And laws? We have too many, and the more the petty laws are enforced on normal people (especially with most in the UK seem to think the police are woefully inadequate at dealing with "real" crime) the more people will get pissed off and start to ignore the law completely.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 01, 2008 @10:04AM (#24830099)

    Really, safety may be the justification, but the driving forces are actually greed and power!

    Beware, when government uses automation to dispense justice, there's really no reasonable limit to how much mechanical injustice these systems can and will produce.

    Sadly, the burden will again fall hardest on those with the least financial herewithal.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 01, 2008 @10:04AM (#24830101)

    Trust is one of the tenants on which civilisation and a modern society is built on,
    i trust my neighbour wont kill me, i trust that random joe i pass on the street doesnt want to stab me, etc etc
    when you can no longer trust anyone but yourself what kind of civilisation are we living/building ?
    perhaps i should be proactive and kill/attack anyone who comes near me or my property, just to be safe of course

    does the gov think its a healthy thing to encouraging that you to trust nobody ?
    what is the correct response to someone who you dont trust ? and will that improve society ?

    perhaps some anthropologists would like to chime in

  • by Klaus_1250 ( 987230 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @10:05AM (#24830107)
    WTF. You actually have a law for ... cutting grass in a timely fashion??? Is that a normal thing in the US, or is it something that you only find in certain towns/cities?
  • Re:hm (Score:3, Insightful)

    by betterunixthanunix ( 980855 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @10:08AM (#24830141)
    Why reference a work of fiction? The Nazi government encouraged citizens to report each other as well, and ironically, the Nazis launched missiles at and dropped bombs on England.
  • by ultranova ( 717540 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @10:12AM (#24830173)

    Here in Michigan we also do this. If your neighbor wont cut his grass in a timely manner there is usually a municipal number you can call. The city agents will come out and issue a fine.

    The Land of the Free, where the allowable length of the grass in your yard is regulated. But as long as you don't have free public healthcare like we have here in the evil socialist countries, I guess it's okay.

    I wonder if some libertarian will reply and rave about the evils of socialized healthcare while ignoring the grass-trimming regulations...

  • by onion2k ( 203094 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @10:13AM (#24830181) Homepage

    "In Hampshire, Eastleigh council wants locals to 'monitor local environmental quality' and report 'issues' involving recycling and waste."

    If you take the single quotes out and read it without your tin foil hat on there's nothing to object to. It's just the council asking for people to report problems which they'll then look into. Surely every local government in the world does that.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 01, 2008 @10:15AM (#24830197)

    Community Support Officers make a lot of sense. When the public were asked what they wanted they said they said they wanted to see more police officers. They didn't say they wanted police officers to solve more crimes just that when they were out and about they wanted to be able to see police officers.
    Given that it is very rare for a police officer to actually see a crime being committed when they are just walking around it really doesn't make sense to spend tax payers money on fully fledged police officers when someone who looks a bit like one will do.

  • by Nursie ( 632944 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @10:19AM (#24830233)

    Really? I thought it was Brainless Womble

  • by Butisol ( 994224 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @10:21AM (#24830265)
    This isn't something to worry about if you're rich. No one's going to come out to your country estate and spy to make sure that your caviar jar is sorted into the glass recycling bin. See, creeping fascism isn't about government trying to control everyone, it's about motivating us to become better (that is, rich) so we don't have to worry about such things. I'm glad when governments care so much about encouraging their citizens to reach their full potential.
  • by Arthur B. ( 806360 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @10:24AM (#24830289)

    The core of the problem is there is no duty to recycle. No one sees a problem with neighbor reporting a murder, yet you seem to see a problem with neighbor reporting failure to recycle.

    The problem is not with the denunciation per se, but the fact that the law is unjust, and the sole result of a coercive monopoly on trash collection, aided by an ecological agenda undermining individual freedom.

    You should have screamed when recycling became mandatory, you should have screamed at the monopoly on roads and trash collection.

    Obviously the danger with these schemes is that the government will push more unjust law, and use its own citizens to report on other's violations.

    The only way this works is because people have a false reverence towards the state, they believe that by making law, it has the power to make just what is unjust, and unjust what is just.

    From experience, most people on Slashdot have a good intuition, nevertheless when pressed a little they fall back on a positivist view of law, giving governments the authority to define what is and is not a crime for example. Sad.

  • by Candid88 ( 1292486 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @10:25AM (#24830303)

    It does seem to have become a Slashdot theme of late.

    Something I've noticed though is that the vast majority of the "horrific loss of privacy in Britain" stories refer to proposed ideas, often by people low down in their government whose job it is to think up new ideas (whether good or - as is most often the case - bad) but few of which have yet shown any real signs of actually being implemented.

    Here, Bush prefers doing these sort of things in secret and using every dirty trick in the book to keep it secret. I'd prefer to have my government announcing plans which will infringe on my privacy before they are implemented rather than them being uncovered by reporters several years in.

  • by grahamd0 ( 1129971 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @10:34AM (#24830389)

    The Land of the Free, where the allowable length of the grass in your yard is regulated. But as long as you don't have free public healthcare like we have here in the evil socialist countries, I guess it's okay.

    I support public healthcare, but calling it "free" is disingenuous.

    And yes, the grass thing is stupid.

  • by xaxa ( 988988 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @10:35AM (#24830397)

    You are right!

    I was recently sent a survey from the police. It asked if I'd seen any policemen walking round recently, which I had. They wanted to know if I felt much safer, a little safer, or no safer. I crossed that out and wrote that I felt less safe -- I'd wondered what was going on that required police to be walking past my house.

  • by Nursie ( 632944 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @10:46AM (#24830513)

    1) not fraud

    2) I don't think that it's anywhere near important enough an issue to justify watching an entire family. Especially given that those doing the watching are not even police.

    3) As I said, it wasn't the police doing this. It's not even a criminal matter, it's a trivial social matter and the fatheads at the local council shouldn't be allowed access to the public CCTV networks over this. Or anything else.

  • by badfish99 ( 826052 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @10:49AM (#24830545)
    In an ideally policed state, there would be sufficient police employed to witness or prevent every deliberate crime but this is impractical.

    Really? Very many things that we do every day are technically crimes. Even the most careful driver will sometimes exceed the speed limit by 1mph. So we depend on the lack of ubiquitous policing in order to be able to live our lives as we do.

    That's one reason why the sudden imposition of automated, mechanical law enforcement is so unpopular. Everyone knows that the speed limit is (say) 30mph, but everyone breaks it occasionally. If you had to drive such that you never exceeded the limit, you would have to drive at 10mph less than the limit, just to make sure. So what appears to be enforcement of the limit is really a reduction of the limit.
  • by mollymoo ( 202721 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @10:55AM (#24830605) Journal

    the local councils have been using the CCTV networks to stalk people for things as trivial as checking whether they live where they said and are eligible for the school they've tried to register their kids at.

    I've never understood the objections to that kind of thing. How the hell are the council supposed to do their job if they can't do something as trivial as check to see if what they say is true? Should they simply believe everything they are told? We're not talking about bugging people's homes or rifling though their possessions while they're out - it's watching someone in public, on the street.

  • by Nursie ( 632944 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @10:59AM (#24830653)

    Oh for fuck's sake.

    Just because something is broken doesn't mean it's the worst place on the planet. Did I say that? Did I say that it was worse than Somalia?

    No. I didn't.

    I said it was broken. Broken compared to how it could/should be and in some ways compared to how it used to be (though by all accounts the place has always had its curtain twitching busybodies).

    "It's just an insult to the people living in countries that *are* broken to use this term for the UK."

    Not in my opinion. I would use the term "totally fucked", or in the case of Somalia "not really a country".

    What is an insult (to intelligence) is your arbitrary attempt on restriction of use of language based on an emotional response. You're exhibiting the same thinking that people use to justify or suppress discussion of torture of terror suspects "other people are worse". The word broken is perfectly appropriate, IMHO.

    TBH the main reason I'm leaving is the weather anyway, but the government, the media and the populace are making it much easier.

  • Re:1984 (Score:3, Insightful)

    by damburger ( 981828 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @11:00AM (#24830667)

    Its about control. The psychos in charge of the country believe the way to make things better is to measure them, and then work to create quantitative improvements in the chosen metric. This is how we ended up with shit like the 'Rural vibrancy index' which incorporates the 'birdsong index'.

    When these hair-brained classification and target schemes inevitably die on their arse (as any such attempt to reduce the complexity of human society to a number of arbitrary measurements will) the government decides that it obviously didn't collect enough random bullshit information to optimise, and throws away liberty for the sake of computing their fucking targets.

    Its a sort of extremist rationality gone made. They want to reduce us to a set of numbers calculated by intruding our privacy at every turn, and then manipulate those numbers to achieve a banal society based around middle-class dinner parties.

  • by slimjim8094 ( 941042 ) <slashdot3@@@justconnected...net> on Monday September 01, 2008 @11:10AM (#24830765)

    Why shouldn't there be a duty to recycle? Have two bins and take the extra minute a week to bring it out, throw your cans and bottles in there.

    I'm all for less government intervention, but as things go this is pretty tame. And that's without going into the benefit of recycling.

    And you have a logical fallacy; there's no 'obviously' about using citizens to report on other's violations. That's intellectually dishonest to suggest.

  • by value_added ( 719364 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @11:10AM (#24830767)

    Sorry I have to beg to differ, The phrase is Glorified Traffic Warden.

    So you're suggesting that no one should worry about Citizen Snoopers until someone in power (and unfamiliar with history) enacts a law requiring all transgressors to attend mandatory re-education camps?

    Dear God, man! Have you ever been to Traffic School before? I have, and I can say that it's the social indoctrination equivalent of waterboarding, but the torture is spread out over a long number of hours, but with a coffee break in between where fellow inmates add their pain to yours.

    Besides, it seems traffic wardens can cause a lot trouble [youtube.com]. [1]

    1. Apologies if it's the wrong scene.

  • by moosesocks ( 264553 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @11:11AM (#24830771) Homepage


    That's bloody insightful.

    Americans have a pretty bizarre idea of freedom (not to mention, a complete lack of awareness and/or understanding of the world around them)

    Even the libertarians seem to have absolutely no problem outlawing abortion, regulating marriage, or giving state and local governments as much power as they please.

  • by Free the Cowards ( 1280296 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @11:13AM (#24830785)

    I don't understand why you put lawn care and snow clearing in the same category.

    Lawn care is pure eye candy. It hurts nobody to let your lawn go to hell, except that it looks bad and poor weak-brained people can't withstand that.

    Snow clearing is important to allow the sidewalks to remain open and functional. It's no fun to have to wade through deep snow to get to where you're going. You essentially have charge of a public pedestrian road, so it's your responsibility to keep it passable.

  • by bigstrat2003 ( 1058574 ) * on Monday September 01, 2008 @11:15AM (#24830803)
    I have no problem with behaving in a civil manner. I find it ridiculous that anyone would just pile up a collection of dog poop on their porch, let alone let the dog poop in the neighbor's yard! However, I'll be damned if I will ever live in a home where someone is dictating to me some petty standards for what I have to have my home like. It's my fucking business, and I will do exactly what I want with my own private home.
  • by Scudsucker ( 17617 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @11:18AM (#24830841) Homepage Journal

    I support public healthcare, but calling it "free" is disingenuous.

    No, it's not - when people say free health care, they mean free to use, like your local library or an interstate highway.

  • by moosesocks ( 264553 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @11:20AM (#24830865) Homepage

    Although I'll agree with you for a large part, the British politicians do still seem to have the country's best interests at heart.

    Some things aren't too bad. CCTV in public places honestly doesn't bother me, and the speed cameras allow police to focus on more important issues than patrolling the motorways.

    In America, those "good interests" were lost to corporate interests many years ago. Hell, we're involved in a war that virtually everyone agrees will harm the country as a whole.

    So, as long as Britain stops passing tiny bits of legislated social engineering, as you call it, I think you'll be OK in the long run. Britain & Ireland keeping the EU in check is certainly a good thing for all parties involved, and I honestly haven't noticed a great deal of destructive nationalism (the SNP, in particular, may be the most innocuous group to ever have labeled themselves as "nationalists").

    This is, of course funny to me, because I'd very much like to get out of the US, and back into the UK. Sadly, the economics of being a grad student in another country don't work out favorably at all.

  • by sumdumass ( 711423 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @11:24AM (#24830897) Journal

    Wait.. Let me get this straight, your upset over people getting access to all of the camera feeds and not the fact that your life is basically the Truman show [imdb.com] because of all of the surveillance implemented in the UK now?

    Here is a hint. When ever government claims something will only be used on the bad guys, eventually you become the bad guy. And if your not the bad guy, prove it by letting the government do their thing because you shouldn't have a problem with it unless you have something to hide. That is why everyone cries fowl in American. Of course it is fun to blame everything on Bush, but that only takes the focus off the congresses that enable him. And no, I don't support the if you have nothing to hide argument. I'm simply saying it gets used all to often to paint you into giving up.

  • by Fantastic Lad ( 198284 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @11:25AM (#24830915)

    If you take the single quotes out and read it without your tin foil hat on there's nothing to object to. It's just the council asking for people to report problems which they'll then look into. Surely every local government in the world does that.

    Eventually people will learn that tin foil, (in its metaphoric state), is a healthy additive in any mental diet.

    I'm guessing that this lesson won't sink in until those people find themselves on the wrong side of some barbed wire. But we don't like to think of such things, so it's better to make silly jokes and hope we're right despite the mounting evidence to the contrary. --Or worse, secretly plan to be one of the informers, so you can finally do away with all the queers and colored people and those weird neighbors who looked at you funny that one time.

    Don't worry though. I'll throw some bread over the wall for you after your sociopathic neighbor who hates you for no good reason calls the cops on you for having a suspicious number of empty spam tins or whatever in your recycling bin. Unless of course you turn her in first, in which case I'll just punch you in the mouth. Hm. Better turn me while you're at it. Cuz you know, I'm one of those strange people who wears that suspicious-looking tin foil. And boy, wouldn't it be nice to be able to get rid of that lot, eh? They're a blight on the community! They're different. They don't salute with proper British gusto. They don't support the war!


  • by Blue Stone ( 582566 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @11:37AM (#24831067) Homepage Journal

    I remember a time when I actually believed we lived in an enlightened time, a time where tolerance and liberal ideals were being enacted - equality for women and people of different ethnicities and gay people.

    And I look around now and I see growing intolerace, authoritarianism.

    Where once I saw a news report about North Korea where it seemed shocking that they couldn't use a public phone box without fear of being listened in on by their government, I see that now I live in a country that spies on my email contacts and who I'm in touch with over the phone and what websites I visit (and so technically what newspapers I may read and where my political sympathies may lie).

    I wonder how long it'll be before we get the formation of the first Anti-Sex League?

  • by damburger ( 981828 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @11:42AM (#24831135)
    Don't try and pin this exclusively on the political left. The current UK government is at best centre-right (if not far right in terms of economic policy at least, privatising everything in sight and punishing the poor to relieve the rich). As has been mentioned elsewhere, Nazi Germany had just such a scheme in place. Don't try the Nazi=socialist bullshit either, because that ignores the historical facts that Hitler purged any vaguely left wing elements early on and that the Nazi party colluded extensively with both foreign and domestic corporations.
  • by internewt ( 640704 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @11:53AM (#24831257) Journal

    It does seem to have become a Slashdot theme of late.

    Something I've noticed though is that the vast majority of the "horrific loss of privacy in Britain" stories refer to proposed ideas, often by people low down in their government whose job it is to think up new ideas (whether good or - as is most often the case - bad) but few of which have yet shown any real signs of actually being implemented.

    The current UK government loves its PR and spin, and seems to have a technique for breaking bad news to the public.

    Far too often the government has a "leak" of a proposed new scheme, to let the press have a field day bitching about it (and people on internet forums, and discussions in the pub). There will then usually be a statement from a minister or someone, who will turn a around and say "it was a leak, so it wasn't official policy, what we want to do only XYZ to fight terror/protect the children/fight organised crime", where XYZ is a slightly watered down version of the original proposal. The press and idiots then will then be a lot more accepting of the proposal, because they feel they have "won" in some way, whereas infact there has still been a further erosion of liberty.

    So we get discussions on /. about proposed plans rather than actual new laws because it looks to be (from the government's point of view) a good way to get nasty plans accepted by the public.

  • by meringuoid ( 568297 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @12:14PM (#24831537)
    We have 1 camera for every 14 people

    [citation needed]

    I've seen that statistic before, and never seen any backing for it. How many CCTV cameras are there in the UK, and how did you arrive at that figure? I doubt it's anywhere near four million.

    The Scientology mob are buying the police and anyone caught with an anti-scientology sign or placard is arrested.

    [citation needed], especially since I see a largish crowd of kids with placards and Guy Fawkes masks in town outside the local mothership all day once a month. I think they're protesting about Scientology, although quite a lot of the placards seem to have to do with Rick Astley, water-type Pokémon, and the length of cats instead.

  • by MindKata ( 957167 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @12:48PM (#24831995) Journal
    From the article...
    "The 'covert human intelligence sources' keep watch on suspected law-breakers"
    "Volunteers will be involved in reporting issues in their area"
    "The recruits will also be involved in the 'promotion of recycling and waste minimisation"

    Sounds more like "Thought Police" than Special Constables.

    For example...
    "Snooping on your neighbours to report recycling infringements" - i.e. Watching others.
    "Volunteers will be involved in reporting issues in their area" - i.e. Reporting others.
    "The recruits will also be involved in the 'promotion of recycling and waste minimisation" - i.e. Changing how people think and so behave.

    So its far more like "Thought Police". Yeah they are there to protect us all, so its good warm feelings for all of us. Yeah right. The problem is this new Thought Police are also there to enforce whatever new rules petty councils think up. As usual the minority of power seekers, who seek to dictate rules and terms to others, also seek to encourage and lead their mini armies of sheep minded people to follow what they want. (Power seekers are sadly so predictable. Their names and ideas change thoughout history, and from country to country, but what always remains, is their constant need to find ever more ways to dictate their rules to others and always, ultimately they are the ones who gain from their power seeking, even these want-to-be petty council dictators with their free army of sheep minded people).
  • by Anonymous Cowpat ( 788193 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @12:51PM (#24832051) Journal

    oh yes, and because most of these 'offences' only carry a fine, if you choose to fight the Fixed Penalty Notice protection racket you're not entitled to a lawyer (whereas the council representative is a lawyer). If they win; you pay prosecution costs, if you win; taking time of work, preparing a case and the general stress of it all don't count as 'costs' so you end up seriously out of pocket.

    This battle ought to be fought in magistrates courts, with the cases being repeatedly tossed as being outside the boundaries of sanity, byelaw or not. (Or, if that's not possible, with fines substantially smaller than the FPN being issued, and no costs.) Unfortunately, that's not how magistrates think.

  • by phorm ( 591458 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @02:28PM (#24833227) Journal

    The problem is that these associations show up everywhere, and as you might note, they're trying to enforce laws that are not legal. I see no reason that the grandparent should have to hunt everywhere for a non-HOA location just because some idiots want to play God but haven't researched the local laws.

    Sometimes you may seem like a jerk for doing so, but a stand needs to be taken.

  • by OneIfByLan ( 1341287 ) on Monday September 01, 2008 @05:30PM (#24834973)

    I just read both the article and the retractions. A 10-year-old boy saw his 8-year-old little sister go under. He literally died trying to save her. That's Harry-fracking-Potter bravery right there, and Heaven is plus one lad tonight.

    Two grown men are told two children are under the water. Wisdom is one set of eyes high, one set low. One man stays on the ground to watch the water and wave the paramedics over, one man gets in the water and prays to get lucky. You won't see squat in a pond's murk, but you sure as hell won't save anyone from the shore.

    The natural inclination for good men would be for both to get in the water, and that would be a tactical mistake, since once you're in the water, you won't see bubbles and ripples.

    According to all reports, both men stayed dry.

    All I can imagine is that neither knew how to swim. I hope for their sake they were merely cowards. If this was just indifference, then this would be one of the few cases where I would support the death penalty.

    How the hell do you NOT get in the water?

VMS must die!