You may have seen the tremendous news that "pay as you throw" schemes have been abandoned. Big Brother Watch wholeheartedly approves. As we documented in our report on this topic, those underhand plans symbolised the worst of our Big Brother state - snooping on our private waste and charging us for the privilege, without any sort of democratic mandate to boot.
On the other hand, you may have seen that the Government is embracing a supposedly alternative scheme in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, which also uses bin microchips. Those who chose to opt into the scheme are given reward tokens when they fill their recycle bins which can be used in local shops.
I oppose such a scheme too, and have been challenged on this by the (generally admirable) Leader of the Council, David Burbage. I thought that I would set my thoughts out here.
First of all, privacy concerns remain entirely unchanged. The Borough's scheme still requires bins to have microchips, both for those who choose to opt in and those who do not. Technology with the capacity to record your waste habits is undesirable, whatever the initial stated purpose.
As we uncovered in the research for our report, there has been an explosion in the number of snooping bin chips. We found that there are microchips in the bins of 2.6 million households: none of them were asked if they agreed to having the chips in place, and none of them (with the honourable exception of those in the Royal Borough) were even told that it was happening.
Those chips create a data set, generated daily, which shows - inter alia - when you're away from home. The risks of such a database being abused, I say, are obvious. I have been called paranoid for raising such prospects. Perhaps the 25 million people whose details were lost when HMRC lost the child benefits database in 2006 were paranoid. Perhaps the 600,000 servicemen whose personal details were lost in the course of 650 laptops going walkies from the MoD were paranoid. But I tend to believe that any such data accumulation by the state is in the end very likely to be lost or abused, and I see no proof that the bin police will be more secure than the taxman or the Ministry of Defence (indeed, on the latter, wouldn't it be worrying if the council bin Stasi were more secure than the MoD?).
Putting accidental leaks aside, the possibility of abuse by guardians of data always exists. We are assured by Councils that their officers are responsible and mature and experienced and won't abuse this data set. I've outlined the perils of reliance on such promises before. Suffice it to say that I do not prefer to have my privacy (and potentially, safety) dependent on every council officer's goodwill.
Secondly, I fear that this is not the end point of any such scheme. The punitive and vindictive "pay as you throw" tax was at least out in the open.
Now exactly the same technology is being introduced, via the bribe of an
“incentive scheme” - once in place, where next? Those 2.6 million chips are still there, and - although we'll have to do some more research on this to establish it as a fact - my suspicion is that yet more councils are installing them notwithstanding the putative end of "pay as you throw". Look at the direction of travel in public policy. Why do you think councils sink this kind of "investment" into this technology? It's so that it can raise revenue.
The environment and “user rewards” are being used as twin stalking horses – once the technology is in place, the calls for pay-as-you-throw schemes will eventually re-emerge, with the predictable talk of "but look how bad how things are for the environment / we're still missing our recycling targets / we have to do something / with regret... and the same data generators will be in situ to be switched over to pay as you throw.
Windsor and Maidenhead are adamant that they would never do such a thing. Well, the same point about goodwill dependence applies here. Furthermore, these councillors can't speak for their successors, or bind them. Worst of all, even if W&M adhere to their position, if their pioneering scheme is seen as "best practice" and taken up by other councils there is of course the real risk (or probability) that those other councils do not share their scruples.
I haven't even addressed some of the obvious points that exist in the field - what about people deliberately filling the bins, in order to get the reward..? - but the central point remains: if we fall for this, we’re allowing the same spying technology to be introduced by the back door.
By Alex Deane