Big Brother is Watching
Sometimes I think I moved to the city straight out of George Orwell’s novel: Nineteen Eighty-Four. There are cameras all over London and based on report below, it looks like there are now spy bugs in the trash bins.
Germans plant bugs in our wheelie bins
By MARTIN DELGADO and HANNAH CLEAVER, The Mail on Sunday
Last updated at 22:55pm on 26th August 2006
Electronic spy ‘bugs’ have been secretly planted in hundreds of thousands of household wheelie bins.
The gadgets – mostly installed by companies based in Germany – transmit information about the contents of the bins to a central database which then keeps records on the waste disposal habits of each individual address.
Already some 500,000 bins in council districts across England have been fitted with the bugs – with nearly all areas expected to follow suit within the next couple of years.
Until now, the majority of bins have been altered without the knowledge of their owners. In many cases, councils which ordered the installation of the devices did not even debate the proposals publicly.
The official reason for the bugs is to ‘improve efficiency’ and settle disputes between neighbours over wheelie-bin ownership. But experts say the technology is actually intended to enable councils to impose fines on householders who exceed limits on the amount of non-recyclable waste they put out. New powers for councils to do this are expected to be introduced by the Government shortly.
But the revelation that the bins have already been altered ignited a ‘Bin Brother’ row over privacy and taxes. Conservative MP Andrew Pelling said burglars could hack into the computer system to see if sudden reductions in waste at individual households meant the owners were on holiday and the property empty.
He said: ‘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.’
With the bugging technology, the electronic chips are carefully hidden under the moulded front ‘lip’ of wheelie bins used by householders for non-recyclable waste. As the bin is raised by the mechanical hoister at the back of the truck, the chip passes across an antenna fitted to the lifting mechanism. That enables the antenna to ‘read’ a serial number assigned to each property in the street.
A computer inside the truck weighs the bin as it is raised, subtracts the weight of the bin itself and records the weight of the contents on an electronic data card.
When the truck returns to the depot, all the information collected on the round is transmitted to a hand-held device and downloaded on to the council’s centralised computer. Each household can be billed for the amount of waste collected – even though they have already paid for the services through their council tax.
Although the chip itself is worth only about £2, fitting the equipment to a dustcart costs around £15,000.
Town hall chiefs say the monitoring system will improve recycling rates by allowing them to identify areas which are not doing enough.
But critics believe the ultimate aim is to charge ‘offenders’ according to how much unrecyclable rubbish they leave outside for collection. Councils expect the Government to introduce laws soon to enable them to set limits on how much rubbish households put out, and fine those who exceed them.
Although there is no official timetable, Environment Minister Ben Bradshaw indicated the Government’s approach this month when he admitted he was examining proposals for an extra tax on non-recyclable waste. Accusing those who fail to recycle household rubbish of behaving ‘antisocially and irresponsibly’, he said it was ‘time to make the polluter pay’.
German firms spearhead initiative
Two German firms are in the forefront of companies cashing in on selling and fitting the wheelie-bin sensors: Hamburg-based Sulo operates in Crewe, Nantwich, Peterborough, South Norfolk and Woking, while rival Deister Electronic, whose headquarters are near Hanover, has been hired to tag bins in the Devizes area of Wiltshire.
The firms already operate similar systems across Europe.
The British Government’s Landfill Allowance Trading Scheme, which came into effect on April 1, 2005, imposes a penalty of £150 a tonne on local authorities that dump too much waste in landfill sites.
Ministers say they must act in order to comply with the EC Landfill Directive, which sets targets for reducing municipal waste in EU member countries.
Deister manager Thomas Menzel said: ‘A crucial element is the ability to identify specific bins and record when they are emptied. That information can be applied in many different ways.’ Helmut Siegler, of German company C-trace, which is hoping to win UK contracts, said: ‘What the councils do with the chips or transponders is their affair. They may decide to weigh the rubbish collected as businesses often do, or simply charge per collection.’
None of the German operators was willing to discuss its British operations in detail for fear of jeopardising potential contracts.
Details of the bugs emerged in Devizes only when a council official let slip about the secret implants during a recent Rotary Club dinner – more than a month after the new bins were introduced.
British firms were more open about their involvement in what promises to be a lucrative market.
Steve Foster, sales director of Bradford-based PM OnBoard, which fits weighing equipment to trucks and operates in Belfast and the Northumberland town of Alnwick, said his company already had a full database of names and addresses and was ready to start charging as soon as the law allowed it.
‘The way to get people to recycle more is to measure what they collect and make them pay accordingly,’ he said. ‘People should be rewarded for putting out less waste and penalised for putting out too much.
‘The technology doesn’t enable us to differentiate between types of rubbish but we can measure the amount of waste in the bin. If a council were to ring and say “How about next Tuesday”, we have the equipment in place to start right away.’
‘Vital’ to encourage recycling
Councils across Britain said it was vital to encourage more recycling. Ken Barnes, corporate director at South Norfolk Council, said: ‘In order to change the hearts and minds of residents, we first needed to understand their recycling habits.
‘The bins have been introduced to protect both our environment and our taxpayers. This has not been designed to embarrass people. We do not publish individual results, but we will use them to help us help those householders who would probably be able to recycle more.’
A spokesman for Crewe and Nantwich Council said: ‘We can detect recycling participation rates. So if a particular street or district is doing particularly badly, we will go and have a chat with them.’ Woking Council said: ‘All the bins have been chipped but we are not using the technology yet because we have not got the vehicle and identification system which weighs them.’
Martin Smith, head of Environmental Services at Kennet District Council, which covers Devizes, admitted that residents had not been told their bins were electronically tagged. Nor is there any reference in documents about the council’s waste-recycling strategy. There is nothing sinister about this,’ he said. ‘These are simply chips that will enable us to sort out disputes between householders about whose wheelie bin is whose. If there are any arguments we can just send out an officer to scan the chip and settle the argument.
‘There is a debate in Government over the possibility of introducing charges but that’s not what we had in mind when we ordered the chips.’
The Tories have already condemned the proposed charge as another New Labour tax-raising measure. And they warn that people will simply start dumping bags in their neighbours’ gardens or at the end of the street to avoid paying.
Wiltshire farmer Tom Seaman urged residents to protest by unscrewing the bugs and sending them back to the council. Mr Seaman, who dumped a digger bucket-ful of uncollected bin bags on the town hall steps during last month’s heatwave, said: ‘This is a disgraceful backdoor policy. Monitoring devices have been secretly installed without a word of consultation or information. People should not damage council property but send these things back to their rightful owners and demand an explanation.’
Kennet Council chairman Gerry Knunkler said neither he nor council tax payers had been told about the true purpose of the bugs. ‘I was assured these things were simply to ensure bins could be returned to the right addresses if they got mixed up or drunks rolled them off,’ he said.
Kay Twitchen, of the Local Government Association, said: ‘This technology would certainly help councils to levy charges on individual householders.’
Anyone who removed a bug and threw it away might not get their bins emptied, warned Paul Bettison, the Association’s environment chief.
Mr Bettison, an advocate of charging, said: ‘Removing one of these devices would not break any law as far as I know. But if in the future a local authority decided to charge for taking away rubbish, it would be within its rights to say to that person, &If you don’t want to pay, we don’t want to provide you with a service.8’
But he admitted that at the moment no action could be taken against protesters.