New whines in old bottles (redux)

Adam LeBor has used the privilege of a guest column in The Times to rail against New Labour’s authoritarianism and assault on civil liberties. Tub-thumping rhetoric it is, and while the core argument is sound, LeBor, like so many other commentators on this issue, misses the point.

Unlike LeBor I have only a largely unread blog in which to air my opinions. At one time I had access to legions of bad-tempered Grauniadistas via Comment is Free, but the less said about that experience the better. However, that episode did offer me the opportunity to balance, at least in the minds of thousands of bored office workers with more time on their hands than sense, the arguments of the ‘freedom or death’ brigade with a little reality.

In November ’06 I had published the following piece on Comment is Free. Given LeBor’s Times article, the fact that the Guardian now largely hides my contributions from public view, and that the version of my article cross-posted on this site is buried in the digital dust, I think it appropriate to republish. I’ve taken the liberty of making a few small edits.

The title is the work of a creative Guardian subeditor. My compliments to the individual concerned.

When millions are happy to give up privacy in return for supermarket loyalty card points, how are we supposed to defend fundamental freedoms?

3 November 2006

Yesterday saw the publication of a report by Britain’s Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, who calls for a public debate on the civil liberties implications of living in a surveillance society.

The call for a debate should be taken up, but there’s a problem. Take, for example, the comments left following a BBC News online piece on the surveillance society. Some of the respondents – who I take to be more representative of British public opinion than those contributing above and below stairs to the Guardian’s Comment is free blog – take a strongly civil libertarian position. But many do not, appearing to accept the “If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear” line, and in a few cases even echoing this ghastly Orwellian phrase. This same attitude applies to many of the statist policies of the current Labour government, which will likely be continued by a future Conservative administration.

Significant numbers of people support CCTV, ASBOs, DNA databases, ID cards, on-the-spot fines and the rest. Whether or not these things have value, a large, acquiescent minority is all that the government and civil service needs to implement the measures without them leading to serious social unrest.

There exists a national myth that Britain is the mother of all liberal democracies, and that in contrast to some of our larger European neighbours we stand up for the rights of the individual. While there is no doubt that the UK is a relatively free and open society, the liberties we enjoy today were fought for during hundreds of years of bitter struggle, and should never be taken for granted. Our constitution is unwritten, government is closed by default, and the prevailing political ethos remains one of patrician liberalism. That is, we are granted certain freedoms but discouraged from questioning what goes on under the bonnet.

How do we compare with our neighbours? There are two other western European countries I can speak of from experience of having lived in them. Denmark and Germany are open societies, and Denmark’s liberal traditions go back a very long way.

In Denmark, personal data gathering and archiving is extensive, and makes full use of modern technology. This small Scandinavian nation is very much an e-society, and the Danes justify their data policies on the grounds that they serve the interests of efficient, open government. By and large they do, though there is some opposition. Data are shared between government agencies, within strictly defined limits, and there is also substantial data flow between state and non-governmental organisations such as occupational pension schemes.

If a resident of Denmark encounters a change in personal circumstances such as bereavement or divorce, this will be flagged up immediately and the individual concerned informed about the legal and financial consequences of the change. They can expect sensitively-worded letters and phone calls from civil servants happy to advise them on what courses of action they can take. Compared with the fragmented government we have in Britain, the Danish system reduces the burden on the individual, and even the most libertarian Danes I know give it qualified support.

Many in Britain are deeply unhappy with the prospect of ID cards, and, given the detail of the government’s plans, I don’t blame them. In Denmark, there is no national ID card as such, but all residents possess a machine-readable national health insurance card. The Gulekort (Yellow Card) is required whenever one visits a GP or hospital, and is useful also when dealing face to face with other public sector bodies. But it’s nothing like what is being planned for the UK.

The difference with Britain is that the Danes discuss these things in detail, including how much information is needed in particular circumstances, and how the sharing of such information impacts on privacy. Theirs is a mature political debate. But in the UK, we collect and share data in a largely unregulated manner, with little regard for civil liberties. And a lot of it appears to be driven by industrial interests that stand to make huge amounts of public money from various government IT projects. If we are to have a public debate about the issue, we should look at the experience of countries that are further along the road in the development of e-government.

Germany, while not as efficient and organised as Denmark (really!), is also well-developed when it comes to e-government, and, like Denmark, has safeguards in place to protect personal privacy. Of course, comparing countries with populations of 6 million and 60 million is far from ideal, but the technologies and methodologies in question are scalable, and I can think of no reason why Britain could not make restrained, legitimate use of public databases while safeguarding civil liberties. Ubiquitous CCTV and vehicle tracking are another matter.

The problem with the UK is that we are unlikely to get efficient government with the plans in place, and openness is alien to the British ruling class mentality, Labour, Tory and (so-called) Liberal. There are positive benefits to databases and data sharing between government agencies, but unless the government’s plans are radically revised, what we will get is mass data collection and retention for its own sake, inadequate safeguards against improper use of the data, and violations of citizens’ privacy and civil liberties.

Police use of personal data is a concern, but the police are among the most regulated of state agencies, and under close public scrutiny. The biggest threat is probably from local government officials who operate with little public oversight and accountability, and are soon to be given additional powers. In the case of your own local authority, how many important decisions are made in open council, and how many meetings held in camera? If you don’t already know, do find out, but be warned that you may find the results of your investigation disturbing.

Technologies such as CCTV and DNA databases may not be neutral in themselves, but they are nothing without the will to exploit them. Instead of focusing on the technologies, should we not instead be looking at the quality of the people we elect and appoint to manage our public affairs? Maybe we are through neglect more than anything else electing persons of bad character to parliaments and council chambers, and representatives are neglecting to properly scrutinise public sector appointments that carry executive power. We should also consider the increasingly managerialist mentality of the corporate world, its obsession with micro-management, employee lifestyle discrimination and infringement of workers’ self-ownership rights.

Many of our civil liberties concerns are justified, but we’re in danger of whingeing, not sleepwalking our way into a surveillance society. When we have arrogant motorists complaining about speed cameras while supporting the serving of ASBOs on, if not the public flogging of, miscreant youths who scratch the paintwork of their cars, and millions are happy to give up privacy in return for supermarket loyalty card points, how are we supposed to defend fundamental freedoms?

How do we challenge public complacency, and the all too common “If you’ve nothing to hide…” attitude? For a start, it’s vital that civil liberties campaigners and journalists continue to speak out clearly and passionately, but broadsheet national newspaper scribblings and appearances on Newsnight are not nearly enough. We need far more campaigning within the community, especially on issues such as CCTV and anti-social behaviour that have a high local profile. We should also be discussing more what kind of society we want to live in, and not continually complaining about what we are against.