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How a forgotten wheelie-bin campaign may offer surprise insights into campaigning against PRISM

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By Simon Davies

It would be hard to overstate the extent of public outrage at the moment about the NSA PRISM scandal. I can’t recall an issue for many years that has triggered such widespread anger.

From the local pub in Hertfordshire England to the highest levels of the European Commission, defiant positions are being taken.

The response is also noteworthy because it cuts across national boundaries and demographics. From the local pub in Hertfordshire England to the highest levels of the European Commission, defiant positions are being taken.

Is this about privacy? A little, perhaps, but it’s mainly about secrecy, deception, unfairness and hypocrisy. As I’ve outlined in other blogs, these factors historically have been the triggers for public dissent. Privacy is merely a convenient catch-all description.

Campaigners across the world are working on strategies to leverage this emotion to achieve greater transparency and accountability of intelligence agencies. Having been involved in previous campaigns on this issue I’m aware how difficult this task really is. For all the posturing of the highest levels of the international community, these institutions were complicit in the NSA’s activities for decades and said nothing. The reason they’re speaking out now is that this has become an issue of general public concern.

My worry is that if the public sentiment disappears, so too will the diplomatic activity. We know from history that the NSA is sensitive only to US domestic political action. Even if the NSA agreed to roll back its powers to the pre-2008 FISA Act changes, the rest of the world would be exactly where it has been for most of the past fifty years. Washington would be happy for such a compromise, Europe will interpret the shift as a climbdown by the NSA and the public would be hoodwinked into believing that reform has been won.

For all the posturing of the international community, these institutions were complicit in the NSA’s activities for decades and said nothing.

At the higher level there are real protections that could be created to guard against the excesses of systems such as PRISM. Reinstating the Article 42 protections in the initial draft EU data protection regulation (that were dropped after extensive US lobbying) would be a good start. However given the way the EU Council recently mauled the provisions of that regulation, is it likely that governments would seriously press for a real limitation on the reach of America’s security agencies?

I believe the answer in the long term rests with the public. Governments will force reform if people remain focused and angry.

The question is how to sustain the current mood. In an effort to discover ideas I explored successful campaigns of the past and found one that – trivial at it may seem – contained similar dynamics to the current angst. Campaigners may make of it what they will. I believe  that in the manner of strategies created by the great US community action campaigner Saul Alinsky it can offer some ideas for ways forward.

Even if the NSA agreed to roll back its powers to the pre-2008 FISA Act changes, the rest of the world would be exactly where it has been for most of the past fifty years.

The Great Wheelie Bin scandal

For any issue – no matter how weighty or complex – there are rare and unexpected moments that define an entire movement. For the escalating struggle in Britain against surveillance such a moment arrived on 26th August 2006 when the popular Mail on Sunday newspaper ran a story titled “Germans plant bugs in our wheelie bins”. The impact of the story and the subsequent campaign were astonishing.

The article was a largely accurate piece of reporting that detailed how local government had been covertly equipping mobile rubbish bins with tiny RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) chips to monitor household waste.

The chips, which are about the size of a one-cent piece, contain identifying data that links the individual bin to the relevant household and which provide the basis to collect data on the weight of rubbish being left for collection. Council’s argued that they were under an obligation under European law to install the devices in order to improve recycling rates.

It’s not that RFID tags are novel. Indeed they’ve been around for decades. There are about two billion tags in use today for purposes as diverse as stock management, payment cards, animal tagging and passports. What councils had failed to do on this occasion was consult or even notify the residents.

As stories go, this was the Perfect Storm: secretive and unaccountable local government acting under cover of non-British laws to bloat the coffers of foreign companies at the expense of everyone’s privacy.

I believe the answer in the long term rests with the public. Governments will force reform if people remain focused and angry.

Anger at local government had been building for some years fuelled by a decline in the quality of service delivery and a continuing increase in tax. Add to this a widespread perception of arrogance by Labour controlled councils whose party had run central government for nine years and the detonator was primed. The blatant xenophobia was probably not even essential to the story. The core issues were secret snooping and non-accountability.

The required crusading politician said all the right things to trigger the moral indignation that was to follow. Conservative MP Andrew Pelling fumed ‘This is nothing more than a spy in the bin and I don’t think even the old Soviet Union made such an intrusion into people’s personal lives.”

‘It is Big Brother gone mad. I think a more British way of doing things is to seek to persuade people rather than spy on them.’

Setting aside for one moment Pelling’s rather charitable view of Soviet history, the MP got the quote perfect. That is to say, the Mail on Sunday journalist who primed the quote got it perfect. Smart campaigners know when to be led by the nose by a clever campaigning journalist.

As stories go, this was the Perfect Storm: secretive and unaccountable local government acting under cover of non-British laws to bloat the coffers of foreign companies at the expense of everyone’s privacy.

The technology soon became widely known as “Bin Bugs” and as the story spread like wildfire from region to region across Britain, local residents took up arms against the receptacle menace.

Within two weeks media was reporting “A huge revolt against wheelie-bin spy bugs is sweeping Britain, with thousands of defiant households removing the electronic devices and either dumping them or posting them back to their local town hall.”

“The protesters are ignoring threats of prosecution for criminal damage in their anger at having their rubbish secretly monitored by council chiefs”.

Officials had confirmed that one of the biggest shows of defiance had been in Bournemouth, where councillors estimated that 25,000 bugs – one-third of the total – have been removed.

Enter Martin Meeks, a retired Chief Inspector with the Special Branch and now living in the Wiltshire village of Winterbourne Monkton. One of the peculiarities of British campaigning is the reverence paid to ”ordinary, honroubale and decent” citizens who live in quaint villages and who selflessly fight City Hall.  Meeks is such a man.

Spearheading the local “Ban the Bug” campaign Meeks was photographed defiantly holding aloft a chip that he had torn from a bin.

Although no-one had thrown themselves in front of a train for the cause of Bin Liberation this episode had a resounding impact on local government and served to remind it of the crucial importance of openness.

All that remained then was to find an official silly enough to respond in a hostile tongue, and the Mail found just such a man. In a classic Own Goal, Kennet Council leader Chris Humphries indignantly responded: “These bins belong to the council. They don’t belong to the people who hold them. They are interfering with a bin that belongs to somebody else.”

Although no-one had thrown themselves in front of a train for the cause of Bin Liberation this episode had a resounding impact on local government and served to remind it of the crucial importance of openness. Bingate has now become part of the narrative of government and continues to be a benchmark of accountability in public service delivery. The “campaign” did not stop the use of the bin chips – indeed installation has risen steeply since then – but local authorities have learned to be far more inclusive and open about the technology.

Our team at Privacy International – like just about all our colleague campaigning organizations – was taken completely by surprise at these events. Things were moving so randomly and at such speed that it was impossible to grab the tiger’s tail. In pubs up and down the country citizens were slamming their fists on the table in fury at being treated this way, and we could contribute little more than a comment or two to the media train. While residents were organizing ”bin burning” parties all we could do was adopt the secondary role of “rent-a-quote”.

There was no “campaign”, at least not in the traditional meaning of the word. Neither was there a controlling mind that coordinated or planned the activities (with the exception of the Mail on Sunday that performed the role of promoter and catalyst). The actions were spontaneous and local. In many respects it was the perfect campaign, without there having ever been a strategy.

Governments that constantly require their electors to yield their private life to official scrutiny should be equally open about their own activities.

The Bin Bug saga taught us much about attitudes to snooping, not just in Britain but elsewhere. As it was a “pure” action unsullied by central command it sits as close as you would ever find to the genuine public psyche.

A scan of the press commentary and published letters reveals some killer elements to the Bin Bug phenomenon. Interestingly they are the same elements that occur time and time again in successful campaigns against government intrusion,

First among these is secrecy. While it is almost impossible in many countries to garner mass public support for improved Freedom of Information laws, the public nerve is exposed on specific instances of non-disclosure. Secrecy is a trigger point in any campaign, in part because it underlines the second common factor: hypocrisy. Governments that constantly require their electors to yield their private life to official scrutiny should be equally open about their own activities.

We need subversive actions of circumvention, disruption and open defiance that can galvanise communities.

What Bingate can offer to NSA campaigners

While rubbish bins are a million miles removed from the machinations of global security, I believe the public sentiments in each case have similarities.subversive actions of circumvention, disruption and open defiance that can galvanise communities and create sustainable and energetic long-term actions.

My belief is that campaigners need to devise two strategies for an escalation of public action. The first is to promote measurable defiant activities that people can engage. This doesn’t mean just signing a petition or writing to politicians – although these actions are important. I’m more thinking of subversive actions of circumvention, disruption and open defiance that can galvanise communities and create sustainable and energetic long-term actions.

The second is that we somehow need to create understandable and clear benchmarks for accountability and transparency. Pushing for legislative change is critically important, but a traffic light system that stays continuously in red is something everyone can understand. Setting out five clear benchmarks for transparency might create the sort of unequivocal target for reform that anyone can understand.

With such strategies I do believe there is a chance for public input at a level that will create sustained pressure on governments.