Potato-chip surveillance: once you start, you just can't stop

The ongoing revelations about UK domestic spying on political activists, continued in some case for decades, and which included an incident in which an undercover police officer fathered a child with the woman he was spying on, illustrate an important point: once you decide someone is suspicious enough to follow around, there's no evidence that you can gather to dispel that suspicion.

The alternative explanation for these Stasi-style outrages (which may be rare, or may only be rarely discovered) is that once you start spying on somebody, it is incredibly difficult to stop. It doesn't really have anything to do with politics – you could be trailing a communist agitator or an environmentalist, a potential jihadist or a suspected white supremacist. Once you've started, the piece of evidence that comprehensively proves innocence doesn't exist. All that exists is absence, the lack of definitive proof of guilt. One more push might be all it takes.

Just one more project … one more pregnancy … one more quick decade. It is imperative to look at the "snooper's charter", or draft communications bill, in this light: politicians fall over themselves to frame it in terms of balance between privacy and security. All normal people agree on this, they say: people like privacy well enough, but are prepared to sacrifice a bit of it (or a bit of somebody else's) for peace of mind. But the assurance we need, more than balance, is that an authority invading someone's privacy will be able to exercise restraint; and that is the bit that proves such a challenge.

These Stasi-style outrages show just how low Britain's spies will stoop [Zoe Williams/The Guardian]

(Image: Peeping Tom, Jean Carolus, Public Domain)