UK Liberty


Posted in database state, detention without charge, DNA database, surveillance society by ukliberty on March 26, 2009

David Goodhart in Prospect magazine:

We are not living in a police state. Not even a remotely authoritarian one. In fact we, all of us, have never enjoyed so much liberty—personal, political and legal. Yet to assert this view sets one at odds with a large part of liberal opinion in Britain. 

… When I read the actual litany of complaint against the government, I felt unmoved. Forty-two days detention without charge and control orders (which apply to just 17 people)?

David thinks it’s fine to put N people under house arrest without trial provided N looks like a little number.  

He’s not alone in this – this notion is also advanced by the Government when it wants to persuade us to accept yet more liberty infringing legislation (for example, secret inquests).

Yet the cases so affected will perhaps be the most controversial and therefore most deserving of scrutiny.

The Government’s word that this person must be kept under house arrest for secret reasons may be enough for David, but it isn’t for me.  

And I believe strongly that everyone is entitled to know the charges against him and have a fair trial.

True, 42 days (which was rejected by parliament) is a long time but suspects are under constant judicial review—and both measures were a response to a real threat, something that never seems to feature in the liberty lobby discourse.

Um, in fact it does feature in the “liberty lobby discourse”.  The question here is, is 42 days – which is by the way the longest pre-charge detention period in the civilised world, and we’re lucky it isn’t 90 days – a necessary and proportionate response, or should we get off our arses and come up with a way to try these people?

Then there is the surveillance state—CCTV cameras and DNA databases.

Our ‘surveillance state’ consists of rather more than that.

Nowhere have I heard of innocent people suffering injustice as a result of either technology

Then open your effing ears: two council CCTV camera operators were jailed for four and two months respectively for spying on a naked woman in her own home, for example.

… What is going on here? Of course there are some serious issues concerning the database state. But why do so many intelligent people appear to hold such disproportionate views about this subject?

Part of the answer is simple enough: the left (and right) needs a club to beat a government with, especially a betraying Labour government.

An obvious counterpoint is that supporters of civil liberties have been complaining since Labour came to power and before.

Now that Iraq is fading from view, or even coming good, a new club is required. Another reason was pinpointed by Rafael Behr in the Observer on 15th March: “Why are we liberals so pessimistic about liberty? It’s as if we secretly crave repression to give us a sense of political purpose.” As he points out, most of the organisers of the Liberty Convention are members of the establishment. For the privileged and influential, freedom is banal. So these liberal babyboomers with a romantic view of political struggle are tempted to invent a repressive state that gives their activism a more heroic purpose.

Of course! We civil liberties supporters are delusional.  The database state is a figment of our imagination; our perception of an erosion of our civil liberties is really a manifestation of our secret craving for repression.  I’m glad David has opened my eyes.

… We are moving from a world of privacy by default to one in which privacy must be designed into our systems. The modern social democratic state needs lots of data about us in order to fulfil the demands we make on it; not just trivial things like our bank account details to pay in pensions or tax credits but much more personal things like health records—to make sure we get the right treatment at the right time.

If there is too much suspicion of the state, and too many data protection rules, the state cannot give us what we want. Equally, if there are no rules or inadequate rules to protect the more sensitive information about citizens then there is the potential for abuse, either accidentally or intentionally. At present we risk getting the worst of both worlds.

There is a third aspect to this: the quantity of information stored.  I’m not entirely sure the state needs to know everything about me. But that is what we are approaching (if we are not already there).

Certainly there would be less suspicion if the Government didn’t behave so suspiciously.

There are countless examples of good public service ideas that are falling foul of unnecessary restrictions. In Southwark, for example, there has been a successful experiment with a “one-stop shop” bereavement service that helps (often old) people deal with all the bureaucratic complications when a close relative dies. It was hoped that this would be extended to the whole country, but as different rules govern various national databases, they cannot share information with one another. Jack Straw has tried to change this [this is a reference to Clause 152 of the Coroners and Justice Bill], but in March he had to scrap the idea after coming under pressure from civil liberties groups.

This is a really pathetic argument.  But again its something that the Government itself advanced.

You’ll note that Clause 152 does not mention bereavement – the power is rather more widely drawn.

This is a Bad Thing.

The reason why David’s argument is pathetic is that such a bereavement service doesn’t require legislation in the first place: the individual can just go to Southwark and tell them that their family member has died and Southwark informs up to “9 Local Authority (internal) departments of the death, it also officially notifies several Central Government agencies delivering benefits and pension services, general registration, driver’s license authority and tax credit support services”.  

In short the individual chooses to tell Southwark about the bereavement and Southwark tells its contacts on the individual’s behalf.

This is a Good Thing and I don’t see any reasonable person objecting to it. 

Giving Ministers such a broad power is a Bad Thing. Do read  NO2ID’s Parliamentary Briefing on the Coroners and Justice Bill.  Clause 152 will return.

Similarly a plan to replace the current humiliation and delay of applying for free school meals with a single, national website (able to share data across relevant departments) has been held up.

I’m not sure what David is referring to here.

There are big challenges ahead—such as who should be on the DNA database, and how the new database to monitor web use should be overseen—and the government has not set out clear and principled positions on these or many other aspects of the database state. It is also true that parts of the state, in particular the police and local authorities, sometimes take a cavalier attitude to the existing protections.

But it has set out clear positions: everyone must be enrolled on the DNA database after contact with the police, no matter whether they are innocent, charged, or convicted, no matter how old they are, no matter what the offence.

They have been told by the European Court on Human Rights that this position is contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights and must therefore be changed.

Nonetheless, the liberty lobby is unimaginatively one-sided. People want privacy where it matters, but they are also prepared to trade it off for other things—like safety from terrorism, or to stop tragedies like Baby P.

People have an inadeqate understanding of risks and an inadequate understanding of what databases can do and how they can be abused.  It is to the shame of Ministers that they play on this lack of understanding and take advantage of fear in order to churn out ever more legislation and databases.

In fact, people happily give up their privacy every day to private or public bodies in return for the smallest convenience. Take Google’s new “latitude” website. It allows you to register your mobile phone. If you do this, and your friends do too, you can see where everyone is on a map, located by the chip in their phone. On a night out in central London, or in downtown New York, this could be very useful: has everyone got to the party or are they already moving on? Latitude has caused a minor storm among the privacy lobby—but you can be sure it will be popular. 

The clue there is in the fact that one may choose to opt-in to Google’s service.  Google didn’t come along to us and say, “you will enrol or you can’t have a passport / benefits / work in the air travel industry / etc” and you can opt-out when you like, too.

It might be useful if we started to see our data as similar to tax, something we willingly surrender to the authorities in return for various benefits, but over which there is also a political negotiation about how much to surrender. The liberty lobby, in this analogy, becomes the Thatcherite Taxpayers’ Alliance of the database state—wanting individuals to hoard their data and leaving the state powerless to serve citizens as it could. 

Er no, I recognise that the public sector needs some data in order to serve us.  Does it need all it has?  Does it need all that the Government proposes to collect?  Does it need to be shared as the Government sees fit?

Moreover, by turning these complex, technical debates into a story of noble defenders of liberty versus cynical, power-grabbing tyrants (whether politicians or officials) the liberty lobby reinforce the lazy anti-politics of the age—a sort of Ukip for the chattering classes.


The reality is made very clear by Guy Herbert in the NO2ID briefing on the Coroners and Justice Bill:

Buried among the numerous complicated and controversial provisions of this legislation is a single clause, clause 152 in the first draft of the Bill, which is a profound threat to privacy, liberty and the rule of law. It is enabling legislation that converts the Data Protection Act into a machine for massively increasing the dealing by government in information of all kinds. It is designed to allow ministers to use a fast-track regulatory procedure to sweep away data protection, human-rights considerations, confidentiality, legal privilege, and ultra vires when they would stand in the way of any use, acquisition or dissemination of information in pursuit of departmental policy. The availability of broad data-sharing along these lines would be a profound change in the way the country is governed, potentially altering the function of almost all other legislation. It should not be introduced at all, but certainly not without proper public debate. There has been no such debate. …

The developing philosophy of government by information management that we characterise as “the database state”, has become Whitehall orthodoxy without any systematic public debate, and the ISO should be regarded as the outcome of a desire to manage the citizen centrally as a single file, rather than permit separate relationships with separate organs of state, and of an impatience with mediating institutions such as parliament and the rule of law. In this view, information sharing is seen as one-sidedly good for everyone. This is set out very clearly in a series of official documents on “Transformational Government”. …

We think that the “barriers” are not random obstacles. They are principles that have evolved in the courts and been captured in statute precisely because they protect things in human life that are worth protecting. …

One Response

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  1. Anthony Barnett said, on March 26, 2009 at 7:06 pm

    Thank you for this – you have saved me quite a bit of work as I was planning a reply! It can now be briefer and funnier.

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