New Year, New Database

Predictions for the coming year are a tricky business (though "things will continue to get worse" would seem to be a fairly safe bet) but some things we can be fairly sure of. Such as the fact that nothing, but nothing, will deflect the government from its increasingly demented campaign to turn Britain into a nation-sized realisation of Jeremy Bentham's panopticon. One of several interlinked Home Office proposals is to spend up to (i.e. at least) 12 billion of our increasingly worthless pounds on a massive database containing details of everyone's phone-calls, browsing habits, emails and internet searches.

When the plans were dropped from the last Queen's Speech, the spin was that the government was slimming back its legislative programme in order to concentrate on tackling the global economic crisis. But a few days later Gordon Brown told the House of Commons that he had already "saved the world". So he will have no excuse not to continue the drive to know everything about everyone. And today's steer from the Home Office is that the database may be put to tender, as the Identity register has been, and sold off to the highest bidder. With appropriate "safeguards", in other words vague promises not to screw everything up and lose the data.

The proposal to sub-contract to a private company has several potential benefits for the government. They point to supposed cost-savings; the private sector is also supposed to have more expertise in the field. More to the point, I suspect, when something "goes wrong" and the data is compromised, ministers will have someone external to blame. That, surely, is the most worrying thing about the idea. But it is the principle of the mega-database, not its bureaucratic structure, that is most objectionable. If the government were to "back down" and accept full public control and accountability, some in the privacy lobby would consider it a victory of sorts. But it would still be monstrous, and it would still go wrong. These things invariably do.

In the Independent we learn that the plans have been condemned in forthright terms by the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner Thomas Hammarberg. He told the paper that the technology of surveillance was developing at "breakneck speed":

The retention and storing of data is delicate and must be highly protected from risk of abuse. We have already seen what a devastating and stigmatising effect losing files or publishing lists of names on the internet can have on the persons concerned. This is particularly relevant to the UK, where important private data has been lost and ended up in the public domain.

The Guardian's report had some even more pertinent quotes from the former Director of Public Prosecutions Sir Ken Macdonald. He puts the matter thus:

The tendency of the state to seek ever more powers of surveillance over its citizens may be driven by protective zeal. But the notion of total security is a paranoid fantasy which would destroy everything that makes living worthwhile. We must avoid surrendering our freedom as autonomous human beings to such an ugly future. We should make judgments that are compatible with our status as free people.

... no other country is considering such a drastic step. This database would be an unimaginable hell-house of personal private information. It would be a complete readout of every citizen's life in the most intimate and demeaning detail. No government of any colour is to be trusted with such a roadmap to our souls.

This isn't Macdonald's first foray into this territory. In the course of a speech marking his retirement in October, he warned that

We need to understand that it is in the nature of State power that decisions taken in the next few months and years about how the State may use these powers, and to what extent, are likely to be irreversible. They will be with us forever. And they in turn will be built upon.

So we should take very great care to imagine the world we are creating before we build it. We might end up living with something we can't bear.

Then and now, he speaks more as a fellow-citizen than as a public official or lawyer. I'm particularly struck by the philosophical tone of his remarks, his understanding that what government proposals imply is less a risk-benefit calculus in which privacy is weighed up against security, but a much larger question about the entire nature of the society in which we live. While the debate on pre-charge detention could be easily summed up as between individual liberties on the one hand and the protection of society on the other, mass surveillance schemes pose a real danger for everyone against a much less quantifiable security gain. For all the talk of terrorism data-retention is really about making life easier for the authorities and less spontaneous for everyone else. It would provide particularly easy pickings for police looking to boost their prosecution figures. The new extreme porn ban (coming in January) might be particularly tempting. First, find a foreign-hosted website offering "extreme porn" - Google makes that easy enough; then use the database to find out the names and addresses of everyone who has visited it. Hey presto, and that rather disappointing clear-up rate suddenly looks a lot healthier.

But the danger of such abuse of the system is as nothing compared to the psychological damage it would wreak. It would fundamentally invert the relationship between citizens and the state. Forget "nothing to hide, nothing to fear": in a world where there is nowhere to hide people will become terrified of even giving rise to the impression of non-conformity. Your actions, your friendhips, increasingly even your thoughts will be dominated by the knowledge that whatever you do they will be watching, evaluating, judging. Nor does this proposed database exist in isolation: it would be slightly less objectionable if it did. Added to all the other databases - the NHS spine, the Identity register, the children's ContactPoint database - and you have a life laid bare, vulnerable not only to official harassment for the slightest infraction but also to fraud and blackmail. The resulting sense of suffocation will surely be unbearable for all but the most sheep-like.

Technology makes all this possible: but because a thing is possible doesn't mean that it should happen. Another recent proposal is to fit speed-controlling devices into cars. Some people might like the sensation of not having to take responsibility for their own driving. But what an infinitely depressing future is at hand. A world in which rule-bending is not merely punishable but physically impossible is one from which all initiative has been stifled. Doubtless, to begin with, such devices will be "voluntary". But once they are fitted as standard to all new cars disinclination to make use of them will become suspicious in itself. And since speeding is such a terrible thing - everyone must agree with that - it would seem perverse to object to a device that makes it impossible, as perverse, perhaps, as not wearing a seatbelt.

I try not to succumb to paranoia, but New Labour really does seem to want to create a world of zombies, in which a cowed and befuddled population has forgotten - or never knew - what it was like to be free. My guess is that they just have a very low opinion of most of the population, and thus genuinely believe that people are incapable of managing their own lives. They are terrified of anything - such as the Internet - that appears to be beyond their control. And they are - as Ken Macdonald suggests - paranoid. Technology has put a fearsome weapon in their hands, one that promises to make life safer, more efficient, and less unpredictable than ever before. So it behoven on their opponents to put the case for danger, inefficiency and chaos: for human beings, that is, rather than machines.

With his legal expertise and unassailable Establishment credentials Sir Ken Macdonald strikes me as the ideal person to put that case.


An excellent post, heralding a good start to 2009 for your blog, if not for the UK. I too detest the government's obsession with monitoring innocent people - as in 'those not convicted of any crime'. Though I wonder how long it will take the Jacqui Smith's of New Labour to decide that presumed innocence is just another quaint legal nicety we can do without?

I have one quibble though. Speed governors for cars are a good way of restricting the damage bloody fools can do with a piece of very powerful machinery. I don't see driving as a basic human right. It's a privilege society grants far too many idiots. If anything it should be taken away a lot more frequently by the courts.

Yrs sincerely
Brig Bufton Tufton, NAAFI (Retd)
Wasp_Box said…
Thanks, another excellent post. I too try not to be paranoid but everything I have been worried about for years seems to be about to happen. This (slightly cut) from Wikileaks:

"Britain is an increasingly dangerous Western disgrace, but you won't hear about it in the British press. The examples needed to elucidate just how the country is failing can not be mentioned, accelerating its decline.

In the last five years Britain has become the the world's largest arms exporter, the preferred home of Russian and middle-eastern oligarchs, the world center for "libel tourism" and, as far as we can tell, the Western capital of secret gag orders.

The same day the Hon. Denis MacShane (Labour) with two MPs from other parties, told Westminster that UK courts had become a "Soviet-style organ of censorship".

The UK has recently introduced a national Internet censorship scheme, a national ID card and is about to spend 12 billion pounds pushing the British population's web-searches, emails, sms messages and telephone callings records through a central database run by its spy agency, GCHQ.

This month also saw British police go into Parliament, without a warrant, and rifle through the files of a senior member of the opposition, the Hon. Damian Green MP, who was alleged to have leaked trivial details about immigration policy to the press.

What's left? The Gulag?"
Matt said…
An excellent post.

An oft overlooked truth too, is that at least in the realm of the internet, anyone technologically savvy enough can avoid their communication being intercepted or measured by the use of private mail servers, encryption, proxies, darknets and other such ever-evolving methods.

Is it even conceivable that determined individuals, let alone organized criminals would go about their business without using protection? Doubtful.

So who is it they really want to monitor? Could it be the non tech-savvy masses engaging in free file sharing, on the bequest of those outdated media behemoths?
Jampot said…
Excellent article but there's one aspect of this database you didn't mention.

Obviously it would have to be humongously huge, and would consume entire galaxies of computing power and storage, not to mention the vast multitudes of workers required to run it and the buildings needed to house them.

The hundreds of billions of £ Labour have given to the banks would fade into insignificance compared to the costs of setting up and running this database - just what we need, more government employees receiving gold-plated pensions ...

That is assuming, of course, that somehow Labour manage just this once to commission and achieve a working IT system ...

And perhaps that last paragraph provides some hope that the database can never be ... although I would be willing to bet that billions will be squandered before the project is abandoned.
DeadRavingMad said…
Nothing to hide means nothing to fear - right? - wrong, it just means you haven't got any cupboards. I rest my case.

Popular Posts