The Times reports the latest reservations expressed by the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas (whose job requires him to be concerned about such things) about the "hard-wiring" of surveillance.
“In the last 10 or 15 years a great deal of surveillance in public and private places has been extended without sufficient thought to the risks and consequences,” said Mr Thomas, 59. “Our society is based on liberty and democracy. I do not want to see excessive surveillance hardwired into British society.”
Well, if he doesn't want to see "hardwired" surveillance, I suggest he doesn't look up while he walks down the street. His main problem, though, is with provisions in the Coroners and Justice Bill, which will allow mass data sharing between government departments and the private sector. The implications of that would be nightmarish even if civil servants didn't have a habit of leaving people's personal information lying around on trains. But - here's the big news -
Whitehall sources told The Times yesterday that Mr Straw would amend the Bill in the next few weeks to meet Mr Thomas's criticisms. Previously Mr Straw's department had maintained that there were sufficient safeguards, including a requirement for parliamentary approval for each data transfer.
This is how the government tends to operate. First make proposals so draconian, so wide-ranging, so outrageously illiberal that even the sedated drones of the Labour backbenches would have trouble sleepwalking through the lobbies, and then, when the opposition becomes deafening, introduce a few token "concessions". These concessions will either be meaningless "safeguards" - the interposition of an ombudsman or high court judge will suffice - or will narrow the scope of the legislation in a manner that the government probably desired all along, for powers too wide in scope may prove inefficient or legally awkward. But the legislation's opponents, most of them anyway, will be satisfied to have wrung at least something from the government, and come away feeling vindicated. Meanwhile the authoritarian ratchet is tightened another cog, and a precedent has been established. When the government come back the following year to close the "loophole" that their own concession created the opposition is far more muted.
Jack Straw was today arguing that, far from being the most authoritarian government in living memory, New Labour has actually been good for liberty. He sees as evidence for this the facts that
I occasionally ask the asylum seekers at my constituency surgeries why they made the very long journey to the United Kingdom rather than a much shorter one somewhere else. The answer is almost always the same: it is better here.
Many people in foreign climes have a sentimental vision of Britain as a land of liberty. But these days that's almost as anachronistic as the equally persistent idea that London is perpetually smothered in fog. In terms of surveillance at least, only the Singaporeans, and possibly the Chinese, are as closely monitored as the Brits. But Straw's argument by misperception doesn't just encompass asylum seekers:
More generally, despite the claims of a systematic erosion of liberty by those organising this weekend's Convention on Modern Liberty, my very good constituency office files show no recent correspondence relating to fears about the creation in Britain of a "police state" or a "surveillance society".
So either people simply don't care about the increasing infringements of their privacy (a contention for which their is a depressing amount of evidence) or they just don't know. Perhaps they don't. Thomas criticises the "lack of debate" that has accompanies such measures as the inexorable growth of the DNA database, the storing of car numberplates or the creation of the ContactPoint database of children. And many people seem to believe that the ID card is merely a card which will establish someone's identity. In a report for the IPPR published this week, Sir David Ormand, former head of security and intelligence at the Cabinet Office, reported that
Once an individual has been assigned a unique index number, it is possible to accurately retrieve data across numerous databases and build a picture of that individual's life that was not authorised in the original consent for data collection
And seemed to be positively licking his chops at the prospect. I think the word "accurately" is more than a little optimistic, though.
Straw sums up as follows:
I hope that in the final reckoning even some of our harshest critics will concede that this Labour government has done more than any before it to extend liberties and to constrain government.
Boom Boom, as Basil Brush used to say.