by J.D. Tuccille
February 15, 1997

Stop Bugging Me

Buzz Click ... Buzz Click. That’s what I heard on my phone the other day, and spy movie fan that I am, it got me thinking. Ya see, our cousins across the Atlantic have taken quite a shine to auditory voyeurism. Now, I’m no stranger to the lonely joys of the water glass pressed against the thin plasterboard wall, but the Brits are institutionalizing the hobby in a big way.

It’s the culmination of a sad, recent trend. For years, the “rights of Englishmen” have been flowing down the same drain as the rights of Americans. Unlike the U.S., though, the United Kingdom has had a long-smoldering mini-war on its doorstep in the form of The Troubles in the six counties of Northern Ireland. Troubles they have been, and an important impetus too, to “temporary” security measures designed to address the emergency of the moment, but more permanent in their staying power than an unemployed beer buddy.

In particular, the British government has seen fit to permit bugging of private property at the discretion of the police. It’s been an ad hoc policy, developed over the years to fight IRA guerrillas based in the U.K. As with asset forfeiture, though, which evolved on this side of the Atlantic as a tool against the likes of my pinky-ringed relatives, the British bugging rules — or lack thereof — have found happy application to all of the enterprising police officer’s needs.

“Oh oh,” my English friends say. “We see where you’re taking this — but you’re wrong! Our cops aren’t like the Serb rejects wearing the blue on your side of the pond.”

Oh cheerio, says I. Nice blokes they may be, but cops have a job to do, and a high-profile, emotionally charged bust or two never hurts your career in any country. The Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, who confessed as their jailers pored through Torquimada’s Ten Steps to Interrogation and were released only after years in prison can attest to the temptations to which the British police may succumb.

Recently, the British government decided to make the bugging rules official. The ad hoc standards were written up in a new Police Bill and submitted to Parliament. In a concession to civil libertarian concerns, the bill was amended to require the police to seek approval from a judge before they could enter and bug homes, offices and hotel bedrooms — unless the police judged the case to be an “emergency.”

Likewise, the police will have to seek permission before bugging lawyers, journalists and doctors if the operation might affect “professional privileges” — a judgment to be made by the police themselves.

Given the interpretations that American police officers have applied to such concepts as “probable cause” and “in clear view,” I think I can predict where this will all end up.

But why should Americans care what happens across the Atlantic? Didn’t we toss those pale, dentally impaired folks out 200 years ago?

Hey, watch that attitude, buddy! Ya see, we should care because law enforcement is an incestuous business. In arguing for loose restrictions on eavesdropping, British authorities pointed to the relatively heavy, and effective, use of such techniques by police in the United States — it’s an important tool they say, so why hobble ourselves? In return, FBI Director Louis Freeh points to the ample leeway allowed the police in other democratic countries and asks why he can’t play too — their governments trust them, he says, why don’t you trust me?

Last month, the FBI released its second notice on what it requires of the telephone system in order to meet its wiretapping needs. Rather than deal on its own with evolving telephone technology, the FBI now wants to require phone companies to shape their services to meet police demands — demands that apparently include the ability to conduct over 100,000 simultaneous phone taps. It’s as if the feds insisted that you drop off a spare key at the local FBI office everytime you installed a new deadbolt lock on your door — after all, you don’t want them to bruise their shoulders breaking in, do you?

For the time being, that Buzz Click on my telephone is almost certainly a function of the Crackerjack prize-quality of the device itself. Let’s try to keep it that way on both sides of the Atlantic.

Ah well, and so much for the power of argument. So back you go to Full Automatic or to my home page.

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Copyright (c) 1997 Jerome D. (Il Tooch) Tuccille. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Il Tooch is prohibited. Mess with me and I’ll use your polished skull as a beer mug.