You'll never walk alone

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THEY have never been friends, or fellow-travellers, even when they were in the same party, but George Galloway thanks his former colleague Peter Hain for confirming his worst fears about the British state.

Four years ago, during a discussion about establishing discreet links with Saddam Hussein’s regime, Galloway maintains the man who now sits in the Cabinet as Welsh Secretary warned him he was being spied on by the security services.

"We will have to be very careful,’ he said," recalled the Glasgow Kelvin MP of Hain’s advice, as they shuffled along a lushly carpeted corridor outside the House of Commons library. "Our intelligence services are very clever and very active. I can tell you that for certain.’

"This I inferred was a none-too-thinly-veiled warning that I was under security service surveillance."

Unlike most of Hain’s pronouncements in the intervening four years, his advice on that afternoon is something that Galloway has taken to heart. The former Labour MP is cautious about who he speaks to on the telephone, and what he says, vigilant for the clicks and whirrs that could betray electronic surveillance.

"Governments always refer to Harold Wilson’s statement that no MP would be subject to surveillance unless the Prime Minister himself signs the warrant, and that the PM would later give a report to the house once it was finished," said Galloway, who was kicked out of the Labour party over his outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq. "The way round this is simply by making sure the surveillance is never-ending, and by surveying everyone the MP speaks to. I am not doing anything of which I am ashamed, but I work on the assumption that the security services are monitoring everything I am doing."

The official obstacles preventing state surveillance of an MP are high, but Galloway nonetheless insists that, in his case, the authorities have managed to scale the hurdles and position him firmly in their cross-hairs. He is not alone in the sights.

When Labour was returned to power in 1997, a series of Tony Blair’s ministers were discreetly granted access to their own security files. Jack Straw, a former student activist, discovered via a leak to newspapers that he had been labelled a "communist sympathiser", while Peter Mandelson learned that his own alleged communist sympathies had led MI5 to tap his telephone for three years in the 1970s.

Campbell Christie, the former general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, and a fiery left-winger, was kept under scrutiny at his Glasgow office by eavesdroppers at the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) hundreds of miles away. "It confirmed what I suspected," Christie recalled of the moment, in 1991, that he learned he had been bugged for years. "They regarded us as the enemy within."

The union boss is one of a long line of public figures who believe they have been under illicit private scrutiny during their careers in the public eye.

But, despite the intrusion, Galloway and his counterparts can count themselves fortunate that they are afforded more protection than the rest of the population. Civil rights campaigners have consistently complained that the people of the United Kingdom have to endure more attention from Big Brother than the rest of the world. The warnings against officially endorsed buggings, burglaries and eavesdropping have become shriller in the past three years, as governments have moved swiftly to tighten their grip over citizens they see as potential adversaries in the war on terror.

More than a decade after the end of the Cold War, Britain’s police and intelligence services have managed to increase the volume of surveillance activities to a level unheard of since the Second World War. More significantly, in the seven years since New Labour came to power, the secret interception of telephone calls, e-mails and post meant for the private attention of thousands of individual Britons has doubled. And the Scots are the most spied-on of all.

A startling new report reveals that last year Scottish police alone managed to win official approval for almost 150 of the most intrusive forms of surveillance operations, including electronic bugging of private homes, offices and hotel rooms. The figure was a huge increase on the year before.

The chief surveillance commissioner, Sir Andrew Leggatt, also found that UK public bodies, including government departments, local authorities and hospital trusts, carried out more than 6,000 surveillance operations on their own staff and members of the public in the financial year 2003-04. In the same period, local authorities recruited 273 informers or "covert human intelligence sources" to assist their investigations.

"Although there have been considerable improvements, there are indications that some public authorities are failing to maintain the required standards," said Leggatt.

Increasing numbers of ordinary people are being routinely monitored as they go about their daily lives, and their scrutineers can be anything from the old-fashioned "gumshoe" policeman on their tail, to a multibillion-pound satellite system orbiting miles above their heads.

Of all the public engagements Jack McConnell honours this month, the "Big Brother" awards is one he will not miss if his office staff omit to enter it in his diary. The sixth annual ceremony, presided over by Privacy International, "to recognise the people and organisations that have done the most to devastate privacy and civil liberties in the UK", will hand out gongs in categories ranging from Worst Public Servant, to Most Heinous Government Organisation and Lifetime Menace. The First Minister, and the organisation he heads, have a reasonable chance of sweeping the board.

In his first year in the top job, McConnell signed more than 250 warrants giving police, customs, GCHQ, the Secret Intelligence Service, the Security Service and the National Criminal Intelligence Service the legal right to carry out bugging operations they claimed were vital to support their investigations. By law, all customs and police undercover operations involving surveillance and the use of informants must be authorised under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) and the Police Act.

The First Minister can sanction phone-tap warrants to assist investigations into serious crime, or "in the interest of national security or to safeguard the economic well-being of the UK". It is a power he has assumed with remarkable energy: the latest report on his performance is expected to show that he is signing the warrants at the rate of over 300 a year.

The surveillance commissioner’s report on intrusive operations, granted prior approval under the Police Act, reveals that the total endorsed in Scotland rose by almost two-thirds, from 87 in 2002-03 to 143 last year, at a time when the UK figure was in decline. Law enforcers are now using sophisticated technology that allows them to eavesdrop on conversations through bugging systems secretly installed in target buildings, or even through open windows using special microphones, as never before.

"The rise in Scotland is off the scale," said Simon Davies, director of Privacy International. "The police will probably tell you that this is in response to the biggest criminal threats facing us, but the goalposts are always moving to justify these huge increases. If it isn’t terrorism, it’s drugs and organised crime, and if it isn’t that, then it’s paedophilia."

Accordingly, the authorities point to the growing menaces of the drugs trade and terrorism, in an attempt to explain the surge in snooping north of the Border. The vast majority of the Police Act warrants were classed under the heading "drug trafficking", which detailed an increase from 70 to 116 last year. Warrants for anti-terrorism operations rose to six, while all other categories of investigation remained in single figures.

Tom Buchan, head of the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents, said the existing tallies accurately reflected the criminal climate facing Scottish forces, rather than an unhealthy enthusiasm to extend surveillance across the entire nation. "I am not surprised by this," he told Scotland on Sunday. "I don’t think I would be talking out of turn to say that the challenges posed by criminals becoming more and more sophisticated, particularly in the area of drug trafficking, are on the increase, and we have never faced such a terrorist threat."

Police and security services can point to some high-profile successes in their low-level listening campaign: a GCHQ wire-tap three months ago led to the arrest of eight young Muslims in the London area, on suspicion of involvement with al-Qaeda.

Yet the authorities have not provided the evidence that will convince civil rights campaigners that the increase in surveillance has had a marked impact on crime levels. While Chief Superintendent Buchan insists "you can’t just go out and follow suspects without permission any more", others maintain the powers are being wilfully abused at the cost of individual privacy.

"These warrants are effectively approved by bureaucrats who have their own motives and there is no check on how they are doing it and why," said a spokesman for Statewatch. "At the very least, they should change things so that only legal officials and judges could authorise these intrusive methods."

And it is not just certain politicians and criminals in the spotlight of snoopers, official and otherwise. In a nation with some four million CCTV cameras in streets, shopping centres and car parks - one for every 15 people in the country - it is estimated the average Briton is spied upon up to 300 times every day. Since September 11 and the onset of the war on terror, the world has focused its attention on the activities of its citizens. Britain is in the vanguard, often enshrining in law powers that critics believed were already being exercised behind the scenes.

The authorities can now secretly tap into e-mails and mobile phone calls and track websites visited without the need for a judicial warrant. Telecoms companies and internet service providers with more than 10,000 customers are required to have the "practical capability" to intercept e-mails and online traffic within one working day of a demand by the state.

In contrast with the targeted picture portrayed by police and officials, the national surveillance operation is a blanket affair, which relies on spying on a huge range of communications to pick up questionable exchanges. GCHQ scans communications using a computer system called Dictionary, which homes in on key words, like "al-Qaeda" and "semtex", and alerts analysts to the calls and e-mails.

At the apex of the listening network is Echelon, the US-led satellite spying system that taps into worldwide telecommunications with the help of listening posts stationed in Britain and all corners of the planet. It

has assumed an iconic status among conspiracy theorists, but many civil liberties campaigners see it as the least threatening development for the ordinary citizen.

"Why are people obsessed with this, when they can be filmed when they are going shopping, when the shops can have a record of who they are and what they buy?" said one Scottish Labour MP, a long-standing campaigner against government snooping who, inevitably, believes he has been the target of a bugging campaign. "They should be asking themselves why they can be followed and bugged and tapped on the say-so of some policeman and a politician, if they’re lucky. The problem is right in front of them, in front of all of us. It shouldn’t be treated like a secret any more."