Sunday, January 21, 2007

Britain: the privacy and surveillance debate broadens

First of all, a happy new year to all my readers! And apologies if this blog is currently being updated less often than in the past. Overload at work is one reason — the other is more positive and described in the first post of 2 November :-) Also, I am happy to report that page visits in 2006 were up about a third over those of the year before.

Perhaps this really is a sign for an increased interest in the topic of privacy by the general public. In line with the last post about the increasing discussion in Britain about privacy and surveillance, the magazine The Economist diagnoses in this week's issue that "the public wakes up to the surveillance society". In an article the magazine (known for its sober, no-nonsense and fact based reasoning) writes about
"development of extensive government and commercial databases—less visible, and so less noticeable—that is truly worrying. Britain leads the world here, too. Its police-run DNA database is the biggest anywhere; the government has plans to track and monitor all 11.7m children in the country; and a scheme for a £5.4 billion system of national-identity cards is under way."
Another interesting development is that the topic is slowly becoming party-politicized. The Tories under David Cameron have begun to pick up the popular discontent about privacy infringement, and are attacking the Labour government that is "eroding the privacy of law-abiding citizens", as Shadow Constitutional Affairs Secretary Oliver Heald put it last November in a reaction to the Information Commissioner's report mentioned in the last blog post:
"From plans for a national ID cards database, to chips in wheelie bins to check your rubbish, to council tax inspectors knocking on your door, its clear that under Labour the liberties and privacy of honest law-abiding citizens are being eroded."
On the more recent story mentioned above by The Economist about linking government databases together, Mr Heald warned
"that examples of 'Big Brother' intrusion included the detailed property database of every home being built by Gordon Brown's Valuation Office Agency in advance of council tax revaluation; Government plans for compulsory ID cards involving a series of databases; the Department for Education & Skills £224 million database of every child; the fitting of microchips in household dustbins in preparation for the introduction of new bin taxes; and the connection of local traffic cameras and CCTV to create a nationwide, real-time database to monitor every number plate in Britain."
David Cameron himself used a speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies to warn of the dangers that the introduction of ID cards with their accompanying data infrastructure would pose to citizens privacy rights, particularly given the past record of failures in mega-sized government IT projects in the UK. (The speech is available here and here).

Given the Tories long-standing reputation for somewhat heavy-handed law-and-order policies, this may surprise some readers. But on the one hand Cameron is keen to demonstrate that the Tories have changed under his leadership; on the other hand this reflects to some degree the logic of Britain's two party system — once the other party has stolen your policies, you have to move towards their vacated position. Labour did the same in the past, for example, when they suddenly turned pro-European after Mrs Thatcher had abandoned her party's traditional position and turned against European integration in the late 1980s…

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