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How police and security surveillance really work (a fairytale for children and for smart adults)

fairytale_landscape_by_reinmar84-d6uaii7By Simon Davies

Once upon a time in a kingdom not so far away, there dwelled a lovely policeman called Elderberry who lived happily in a picturesque village at the top of a beautiful green hill populated by flowers and birds and contented sheep.

Elderberry had been the town’s policeman for as long as anyone could remember. Even old man Tyler, who was as old as anyone could get before falling apart, couldn’t remember anyone before Elderberry.

So it went without saying that Elderberry was very confident. He would strut around the town in his blue tunic and matching breeches, wagging his finger at wrongdoers and hilariously smacking errant schoolkids over the head with his truncheon.

Elderberry knew absolutely everything that went on in the village. He knew about Miss Heineken’s sordid affair with the butcher – and even the collection of deeply disturbing photos under Old Man Tyler’s bed. But Miss Heineken and Old Man Tyler were informants, so that was all OK.

Sometimes Elderberry would conduct secret beatings of people he didn’t like, but mainly he was just a nice helpful guy who made sure nothing strange or unusual happened in the kingdom.

Elderberry knew absolutely everything that went on in the village. He knew about Miss Heineken’s sordid affair with the butcher – and even the collection of deeply disturbing photos under Old Man Tyler’s bed. But Miss Heineken and Old Man Tyler were informants, so that was all OK.

Elderberry had made it his business to command respect throughout the kingdom. This meant making sure people feared him, even if the result was some sort of Kafkaesque dystopia for those who didn’t fit into Elderberry’s elite social circle.

Still, the rule of law had to be observed, and Elderberry knew this better than most. Back in the days of The Troubles he had been caught breaking into the cottage of a goblin who was suspected of stealing potions from the local apothecary. Then he lied about it to the village council but was caught out.

So, the village council was forced to create a law that said anything that a policeman did in good faith in the past would be forgiven and that in future it was OK for policemen to break into the cottage of a goblin who was suspected of stealing potions from the local apothecary, as long as the policeman filled out a form.

And of course any goblin who was suspected of stealing potions from the local apothecary and had his cottage broken into was allowed to appeal, as long as he actually knew his cottage had been broken into or that a form had been filled in. The policeman didn’t actually have to tell the goblin that the form had been filled in, so everyone was happy and there was much less bureaucracy.

Still, Elderberry wasn’t happy. He knew what was good for the village, and these meddling civil libertarian gnomes weren’t helping. Who knows what was going on in secret? It was a worry. What if there was a clandestine radicalisation of the elves?

One day Elderberry decided to exploit his need for more power by approaching one of the village’s most respected families. They both had a problem – and Elderberry had the solution.

This family had an awesome mum and dad who cared dearly for their two wonderful children – thirteen year-old Deidre who wore pigtails, and David – who had just turned sixteen and hilariously still had lemon-sponge birthday cake smeared on his face. That’s because David is a teenager and viewed such things as shocking, and therefore cool.

But no-one really cared that David had cake on his face, because theirs were such a happy family. David was smart, and knew his constitutional rights even before he was old enough to be arrested.

And Deidre, well, she’s a mischievous young girl but she never said anything out of place, except to scream obscenities at Mr Hardman, the slightly creepy bakery assistant from down the road.

Mum and dad always assured their children that the key to a happy family was trust and openness, and they would never do anything to mess up those dynamics. After all, they each wanted to get along and be safe and happy.

Aunty Betty just wants to help the children

Aunty Betty just wants to help the children

But the happy family had not always been so happy. Not long ago mum got paranoid after reading too many newspaper stories about drugs and decided to secretly search David’s bedroom.

And oh! The disgusting objects mum found. No drugs, but a very saucy magazine with lots of pictures of scantily-clad women in leather biker jackets. And a book written by a celebrated Cuban internationalist leader who advocated violence to enforce a utopian philosophy of the collective good.

Even though mum found no drugs – or even any drug paraphernalia – she got quite worried about the porn mag and the propaganda of an over-idealised Cuban murderer. After all, weren’t those the sort of items that druggies have in their possession? Mum had read about that somewhere.

Well, when David found out about his mum’s little escapade in his room he went ape! He stamped his foot on the ground and ran off to live with Uncle Monty who has an unsavoury reputation and should never have been allowed near impressionable young people.

Mum argued that David’s safety was more important than his privacy, but the angry boy refused to come home. He complained there had been a breach of trust. How could he ever believe in mum again? And what if she had discovered his little secret – the one he had ordered by mail in the plain packaging? His sanctuary would never be the same again.

To make matters worse, Deidre sided with her brother and started to act out. She chewed gum and wore tight clothes and even said the word “fuck” very loudly one night in the cinema, just to cause a controversy. After all, she opined, if mum and dad can break rules that everyone had agreed to, then why should she bother respecting those rules?

The arrangement seemed reasonable to mum and dad. And Elderberry even agreed to engage an independent person to scrutinise the use of the hole. As luck would have it, that person turned out to be Aunty Betty.

“Good observation” replied mum, “but you’re grounded anyway”.

Deidre and David agreed it was a case of one law for some, and another law for the rest. The children even thought of asking Aunty Betty to act as a third-party adjudicator, but she always sided with the parents so there was no justice to be found there.

Well, things settled down after a while and David came home – only slightly scarred by the infamous Uncle Monty. And Deidre stabilised too, to the point where you could hardly tell that she was still an angry and disillusioned young woman with a hatred of authority.

They all made a pact so the happy family could maintain trust – a sort of Bill of Rights. David helped out through his detailed knowledge of The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Constitutional Law (Michel Rosenfeld and Andras Sajo, 2012, ISBN-10: 0199578613). It wasn’t all that relevant to the arcane laws of their kingdom, but hey, you take what you can get.

They agreed to make sure that in the future there would always be probable cause before any snooping on bedrooms was done. And there needed to be transparency too. And some sort of due process and external review (Aunty Betty volunteered for that job but she was voted off by the kids).

Anyway, they all seemed happy about this arrangement and were able to get on with their lives in the knowledge that privacy and safety could be assured.

But on this day Elderberry came knocking on the family’s back door and took mum and dad aside into the woodshed for a quiet chat.

“We have information” he said, in a slightly menacing but assuring way, “that there’s a bad element in the village.”

The parents both gasped.

“And we don’t quite know what this bad element is doing or who it is, but we need your help.”

Mum and dad agreed to help. After all, safety was important.

Elderberry outlined his plan.

“When you build that new window frame in David’s bedroom”, he whispered, “I want you to drill a small hole on the left hand side. That way if I urgently need to see who David is associating with I won’t need to bother either him or you with a pesky warrant”.

The arrangement seemed reasonable to mum and dad. And Elderberry even agreed to engage an independent person to scrutinise the use of the hole. As luck would have it, that person turned out to be Aunty Betty.

“We can trust her”, said dad reassuringly. “She always does the right thing”.

But after a while these arrangements weren’t good enough for Elderberry.

“Look”, he said to the parents one night in a secret cabin in the woods. “This peep hole isn’t guaranteeing your children’s safety. I can only look through every so often and I have to fill out this pesky paperwork every time. We need something better;”

Elderberry explained that in order to ensure strong village security he’d need a fundamental structural change to the domestic infrastructure. That is, the parents would need to get a circular saw and cut a big hole in the wall and disguise it with a wardrobe so Elderberry (and Elderberry’s newfound security partners) could hide in the wardrobe whenever they wanted and get a much clearer idea of what was going on.

“We heard a word”, he told the gasping parents, “and that word wasn’t a nice one”.

And that, children, is how our happy family struck a fair and reasonable balance between privacy and security. What a pity other kingdoms in the real world haven’t thought of it.