LONDON—The British tolerate millions of surveillance cameras watching their every public move. They agreed to let roadside cameras record their vehicular movements and store the information for two years. But when they discovered that their garbage is being bugged, they howled that Big Brother had gone too far.
Local governments have attached microchips to some 500,000 "wheelie bins," the trashcans that residents wheel to the curb for collection. The aim, they say, is to help monitor collections and boost the national recycling rate, now among the lowest in Europe.
The public has reacted with suspicion and fury.
"Germans Plant Bugs in Our Wheelie Bins," a Daily Mail headline announced in August. Two of the bin manufacturers are German. Newspaper letter writers have taken to calling it "Bin Brother."
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A Member of Parliament from London's Croydon neighborhood denounced the chip as "the spy in your bin."
"The Stasi or the KGB could never have dreamed of getting a spying device in every household," said Andrew Pelling, a Conservative, referring to the former East German and Soviet spy agencies.
Small-scale revolts have erupted across the United Kingdom for months, as different localities adopt the technology. Some towns failed to mention the new feature, which is concealed under coin-sized plugs under the rims of their garbage cans.
In the coastal city of Bournemouth, 72-year-old Cyril Baker ripped the chip off his new bin the day he discovered it, then went on national television to show how he did it. Thousands of his neighbors followed his example. "It was a very emotional issue. The whole town was in an uproar," he said.
It's a wonder that the tiny dustbin attachment has provoked such a response in Britain, home of the most monitored people in the Western world. An estimated 4.2 million closed-circuit TV cameras—one for every 14 residents—are trained on British streets and schools, parks and churches. Cameras are planted in phone booths, on vending machines, at gas stations and inside every double-decker bus in London. An Englishman may be captured on cameras 300 times in a typical day, surveillance experts say.
Yet the microchips in the wheelie bins struck a nerve.
"I think people really see this as an intrusion into their personal space," said Bournemouth councilman Nick King, a champion of the anti-chip cause.
Residents also fear that the little bug will nip them in the wallet. The microchips—radio frequency identification transmitters known as RFID tags—can't actually spy on the contents of a bin. They're more like tiny digital nametags, but they hold lots of information and can be scanned from yards away.
In parts of Germany and Belgium, garbage trucks equipped with scales and scanners lift the tagged bins. The bins are weighed as they're emptied, and residents are charged for each pound they send to the landfill.
Bournemouth administrators swear that they intend only to monitor trash trends and return lost bins to their assigned homes. Other cities said they wanted to identify heavy heapers to advise them on better rubbish management.
But residents suspect a plan to levy charges for garbage hauling, and some local officials have acknowledged that's their long-term aim.
The Orwellian aspect has been blown out of proportion, chip supporters say. "People think it's Big Brother watching them, and it's not. It's a system for weighing rubbish," said David Peel, the communications manager for South Norfolk Council, which has a bin chip project under way.
Civil libertarians worry about a day when every object has an embedded RFID tag, and people don't know who's tracking their trash.
Put this technology in the hands of sanitation workers and it won't stop at just weighing the garbage, predicts Chris McDermott, an anti-RFID activist.
"Before you know it, they'll be scanning the actual products, wrappers and other detritus that you throw away inside the bin, as these are also scheduled to be RFID-enabled in the near future," he warns on his Web site, www.notags.co.uk.
Not likely, said Andy Shaw, the business manager of Cambridge Auto-ID Lab, a university research center that's developing new uses for radio frequency tags.
The lab, according to its Web site, is creating a system that will enable computers to identify "any object anywhere in the world instantly." But Shaw thinks, "nobody is going to pay to put readers onto garbage trucks that can read everything. It's just too expensive."
Anyway, Big Brother doesn't have to resort to scanning your garbage to know what you own, not with store loyalty cards and credit cards so abundant, Shaw joked.
As the furor grows over microchips in rubbish barrels, cameras are proliferating.
In Bournemouth, Liberal Democrats battle Conservatives over who's done more to expand camera surveillance. The city, with a population of 164,000, operates more than 75 cameras in the town center. Jim Klegg, Bournemouth's street enforcement manager, announced this month that film footage will be used to help prosecute for littering, "which includes dropping cigarette butts and chewing gum," he said.
How to explain the enthusiasm for a vast and expanding network of cameras? King, the Bournemouth representative, said the experience of being monitored is rather British.
"Inherently, we're quite happy to be watched when we're out and about, because we feel if someone is watching us they can help us," he said. "But there's a line we draw around the home."
Kate Fox, a London anthropologist who studies the English, sees it that way, too.
Surveillance may seem futuristic, but she maintains that it re-creates, in the English mind, the modern equivalent of the pre-industrial hamlet, where neighbors knew one another's business.
"We rather like that sense that we're being looked after," she said. "It makes us feel secure."
Yet when it concerns the home, the English are obsessed with privacy, she said, and microchipping the wheelie bins must seem like a breach of the moat.
"The Englishman's home really is his castle, and I guess our rubbish bin is part of it," she said.
(Ruskin is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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