Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Big Brother back in business

Most people are talking about the spending review today, but there are other things going on - like the Coalition's latest abject surrender to the architects of the database state. As I was saying just the other day, ID cards may have gone, but much beside remains, a lot of it arguably worse.

Eighteen months ago, the then Labour government announced the abandonment of a £12 billion scheme to build a central database storing details of every phonecall, email and website hit made by everyone in Britain. Instead, telecoms companies and ISPs would do the dirty work, otherwise known as the Intercept Modernisation Project. Some campaigners (including Shami Chakrabarti) saw this as a welcome concession by Big Brother to the principle of privacy. Actually, it just represented a convenient cost saving. And as I wrote at the time:


We should be careful. A big, scary centralised database does at least present opponents with a target to aim at. By forcing companies to collect the data the government will achieve most of what it wants, but stealthily. Despite talk of safeguards, the proposal will enable almost any public body to build up a complete picture of anyone they choose, with little or not outside scrutiny. Even the minimal safeguard of needing authorisation from a magistrate or judge appears nowhere.


Henry Porter was moved to prophesy:

We should not be lulled into seeing this as change in the government's goal of knowing everything about every one of us. The civil servants behind the scheme have a very long horizon indeed – an agenda that is designed to survive cuts in public spending and any change of government.

They will argue the urgent necessity of the case with force and plausibility to inexperienced Conservative ministers, as they have done to the co-operative second raters in the present government. I pray that a future government will have the gumption, sense of history and political values to resist these arguments...



For a short while (a couple of weeks, at a pinch) it looked as though the new government might indeed have the gumption. A Conservative party more newly committed to personal freedom, bound together with Liberal Democrats for whom the defence of civil liberties have always represented a core belief... What could possibly go wrong? It was all there in the Coalition agreement, which promised to "end the storage of internet and email records without good reason". Even Henry Porter seemed to agree, signing off his blog in May with the joyful air of a man who thought his job was done.

An important caveat was attached to that seemingly clear-cut promise. It attracted little attention at the time, perhaps because it seemed self-evident. What possible "good reason" could there be to store data on the entire, law-abiding population just to help catching a few criminals? Surely "good reason" implied that each individual act of data storage must be justified? Of course not. To the officials in the Home Office, the need for a "good reason" attaches, not to the collection of particular bits of data, but to the policy of data storage as a whole. So however depressing it is, it's not surprising to discover (in a little-noticed announcement yesterday) that the data storage policy is to continue almost unchanged.

The civil servants and securicrats haven't even had to think up any new "good reasons", even for appearances' sake, even so ministers can claim that their U-turn is compelled by scary new threats. The Security Strategy document released yesterday argues that data-retention is required "to keep up with changing technology and to maintain capabilities that are vital to the work these agencies do to protect the public." That is precisely the justification set out at length in Labour's document of April 2009. It wasn't convincing then and it's no more convincing now. Data storage is not about "maintaining" capacities that the security services or the police already have; it's about giving them unprecedented new powers of snooping and data-mining, a prospect about which they have been salivating for years.

"It is disappointing that the new ministers seem to be continuing their predecessors' tradition of credulousness" says Guy Herbert of No2ID. Perhaps he should redesignate Saturday's victory party as a wake. The new government may display slightly less relish for Orwellian schemes than the last lot did, but that's as far as it goes. Alex Deane finds it "fascinating and dreadful to see the speed of bureaucratic capture, the reversion to bureaucratic authoritarianism on show". The fight will go on, of course, but there's no longer an obvious enemy (New Labour) against whom to unite, nor an obvious solution (voting them out). Instead, the reality of where the real power lies is horribly exposed. Of course, we knew all along, but it was nice to be able to delude ourselves for a little while.