Some say it was an ominous sign when some Bobbies’ helmetcams literally caught fire. The darling of proponents of security on city streets, Great Britain’s police agencies, borough councils and government officials now are under fire for growing one of the most extensive citizen surveillance operations in the free world. The lobbying group Privacy International placed Britain in the bottom five countries regarding privacy and surveillance. That’s not surprising, of course. But criticism from the House of Lords?

''Successive U.K. governments have gradually constructed one of the most extensive and technologically advanced surveillance systems in the world,'' the House of Lords Constitution Committee said in a recent report. It contends that the government had enacted the law (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, or RIPA) in the first place to provide a framework for a series of scattershot rules on surveillance. The goal was also to make such regulations compatible with privacy rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights. So Parliament is now reviewing RIPA.

RIPA gives 474 local governments and 318 agencies, powers once held by only a handful of law enforcement and security service organizations. Under the law, the localities and agencies can film people with hidden cameras, look through telephone calls and Web site visits and enlist undercover ''agents.''

Sir Christopher Rose, the chief surveillance commissioner, said that local governments had conducted nearly 5,000 ''directed surveillance missions'' in the year ending in March and that other public authorities had carried out roughly the same amount.

The review of RIPA, coupled with some studies that show a lack of impact on crime by security cameras and the down economy, may show Britain’s surveillance society.

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