Friday, 18 September 2009

Reasons to be cheerful

There has been rather a mixed reaction to Dominic Grieve's pledges to reduce the scope of New Labour's surveillance state once the Conservatives come to power.

Many have welcomed the firm commitments to abolish the ID card register and the ContactPoint databse, to confine the DNA register to people who have actually been convicted of a criminal offence, and to give new powers to privacy watchdogs. But there's also a lack of detail in other areas, hints that the policies amount to a scaling back rather than an abolition of the database state, and no mention of some contentious forms of surveillance. Some people just don't trust Tories, of course. But there are more thoughtful critics, among them Henry Porter, who fears that there's a behind-the-scenes struggle going on between the parties libertarian and authoritarian wings. He writes that prominent shadow ministers like like George Osborne, Michael Gove and (would-be Home Secretary) Chris Grayling "really believe in keeping and using the powers of the state." Significantly, he suggests, "the databases and practices that the authors do not touch on are either Home Office initiatives, or the result of police policy, which of course comes under the home secretary's remit."

Scepticism is always justified - and the Conservatives don't deserve a blank cheque on this or any other issue. Nevertheless, I remain cautiously optimistic about Tory intentions in this area. There are several reasons why we shouldn't write off the next government months before they are even elected.

Firstly, there's more in Grieve's speech and document than mere lip service to a newly-fashionable suspicion of the big state. Grieve enunciated strong underlying principles. Among these were that personal information belongs to individuals not to the state:


Where private details are collected by the goverment, they are held on trust. The government must be held accountable to the citizens, not the other way around.


This sounds like motherhood-and-apple-pie stuff, but it is almost the opposite of the approach that has been pursued under Labour. Some of the surveillance and database infrastructure that has been constructed over the past few years is the result of long-established bureaucratic processes and technological change - actually, large parts of it are - but there's also no doubt that New Labour has seen a state which holds almost total information on every citizen as a goal to be pursued with enthusiasm and vigour. Supporters see the creation of linked and omniscient databases as the key to a new paradise on earth in which the beneficent potentialities of the State can finally be unleashed. Hence they are unlikely to be held back by the costs, the regular security breaches, or the concept that a state that knows everything is inevitably going to be the master rather than the servant of the people. They don't get it, and never will. Conservatives, with their innate scepticism of collectivist solutions, do get it.

There is a deeper lesson here about governance, delivery of public services, and public protection. We cannot run government robotically. We cannot protect the public through automated systems. We cannot eliminate the need for human judgment calls on risk, whether to children, or from criminal and terrorist threats. And we can never eliminate all risk, it is part and parcel of ordinary life...

Over-reliance on the database state has proved a woefully poor substitute for human judgment and care on the frontline of public service delivery. The state has encroached on the privacy of the innocent citizen, but delivered precious little in return.


As Grieve points out, the growth of government databases has been "inspired by New Labour's view of the relationship between the citizen and the state, which allows central and local authorities wide powers of command and control over our lives". And he offers chilling quotations from "transformational government" guru Sir David Varney (a Brown favourite), who reassured ministers not to worry unduly about the risks associated with government by database since "The public do not see the process. They experience only public services packaged for their needs". That statement, needless to say, reveals not only breathtaking arrogance in its disregard for personal privacy, but also astonishing naiety that in the age of the internet the public will not "see the process". In fact, the public has seen more and more of the process, and increasingly doesn't like what it sees.

That, incidentally, is a second reason why we should be cautiously optimistic about Tory plans. "Contrary to New Labour assumptions", writes Grieve, "the public are now all too aware of the growing risks." After years of sleepwalking into a surveillance society, the British people have started, belatedly, to rouse themselves - thanks in part to the tireless campaigning of groups like NO2ID and the Manifesto club, or people such as Henry Porter who helped organise the Convention on Modern Liberty earlier this year. Labour ministers, who believed that concern for privacy or belief in the rule of law were purely middle class diseases, have been caught out by the storn that broke the other day over the Independent Safeguarding Authority. It's no surprise that Dominic Grieve promised to review the scheme on Wednesday. I hope he can be persuaded to drop it completely. For all the misleading talk of Ian Huntley, there is no evidence that the scheme would serve any useful purpose whatever.

Thirdly, Grieve makes the argument from costs. The cost savings to be had from scrapping and scaling back surveillance are considerable. As he pointed out:

ID cards have been independently estimated to cost £19 billion. And time and time again, public sector databases have run over their estimated costs, and that's before taking into account the costs of clearing up when things go wrong. These have proved to be enormously wasteful and inefficient investments of taxpayers' money as we struggle through a recession.


Even government ministers are now talking - off the record - about making a symbolic sacrifice of ID cards as part of The Cuts, despite the fact that so much money has already been thrown at the scheme (and so much more committed in private-sector contracts) the actual savings would be disappointingly meagre. Taking an axe to the surveillance and data-gathering machinery of the New Labour state would, however, yield considerable returns. These were projects embarked upon during the years of plenty, when a few billions were neither here nor there. They have suddenly become much harder to justify. Faced with a choice between closing hospitals and disconnecting CCTV cameras or deciding not to spend an estimated £2 billion monitoring ever call made or email sent (and that, in itself, is the scaled-down version), it would be a brave minister who decided to close the hospital.

A fourth reason for optimism lies in the change in public opinion mentioned above. This has partly come about because of the scandals associated with breaches in data security (of which the Grieve report, incidentally, contains an excellent summary). But there is a generational change, too. The database state may have seemed modern a decade ago, but in the age of Twitter the whole concept is clunky, harking back almost to the era of mainframes. Technology has made the totalitarian dreaming of yesterday - a state in possession of truly Godlike knowledge of everyone who resides within its borders - something like a realistic possibility for the first time in history; but it has also spread information around like muck, it has turned back the surveillance onto the state. What happened to the Metropolitan police in the wake of the G20 protests earlier this year shows how the authorities can no longer control information. We are watching them watching us. While Grieve was right to point out that New Labour has, in many dangerous ways, shifted the balance from the citizen to the state, in significant ways it is now shifting back. A government that understands this alteration will be swimming with the tide. And radical action on the surveillance state will provide the new government with a headline-grabbing way of demonstrating a clean break with its discredited predecessor.

Then there is the nature of Toryism itself. Henry Porter is right to note a strong authoritarian streak in many (though by no means all) Conservatives. However, Conservative authoritarianism is very different thing from the sort of authoritarianism we have come to expect from Labour. It is, for a start, much more focussed. It tends to have particular and rather narrow obsessions: banning smutty films, for example. It is very keen on law and order. It wants to crack down on criminals and control immigration. Civil libertarians will find much to object to in Tory authoritarianism, if it is given free rein (which it won't be, though the Tory Conference might be thrown the odd bone). Yet it is not as dangerous as Labour authoritarianism, because it has always gone along with a belief in the individual, the integrity of the family and the need to preserve historic institutions. In the Conservative worldview, the state is there to back up these natural institutions, not to replace them. There is no state-worship in Toryism; nor is there the belief that the larger the State, the more benign or helpful it can be. These are all deep-seated Labour ideas. Some Conservatives might relish the mischievous possibilities of databases and surveillance, but they don't delude themselves that these are nice, friendly things.

It is the combination of New Labour's theoretically progressive goals, its love affair with technology and its almost pathological desire to "send a message" on whatever issue has attracted the attention of headline-writers that has caused so much of the problem. A new government will bring a fresh, sceptical eye. It's even possible that in Opposition Labour will rediscover the importance of civil liberties.

There are still major obstacles in the way of a proper dismantling of Britain's uniquely intrusive surveillance architecture. The most serious, perhaps, will be in the civil service. NO2ID's Guy Herbert has commented that "we need an incoming government to understand that what it needs to do about the civil service approach to IT is radical, and that the database state is a deeply embedded adminstrative approach whose acolytes will defend it." There are also the private contractors who have done so well out of the New Labour years, and whose lobbying prowess is formidable. But still, things are definitely looking up.