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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Personal Privacy: The Next Big Debate the UK Should Have?

Personal Privacy: The Next Big Debate the UK Should Have?

Not since times of war and national crisis has personal privacy been such a live issue. In times of rapid technological development, the concept of personal privacy is being consigned to history. Is a debate worth having before it’s too late? Or is it too late already? This article was first published on Suite 101, 3 April 2012. It is republished with more recent links below.

Politically, it could be that Coalition Government problems about an ill-judged Budget, about handling a potential fuel crisis and about changing the definition of marriage will fade with time.

However, these difficulties will probably pale into insignificance when set alongside the head of steam building against proposals to increase ‘official snooping’ into almost every corner of every citizen’s life.

In a democracy it’s generally a given that people trade a certain amount of their individual liberty in exchange for freedom from acts of excessive aggression through terrorism or crime. That delicate but fundamental balance may be soon set aside in favour of new powers to authorities at the expense of individuals.

New Proposals

It is widely reported and confirmed by the Home Office that May’s Queen’s Speech outlining the Government’s legislative proposals for the next eighteen months will include a measure to increase drastically the data that police and intelligence agencies can access. Everybody’s communication is to be opened to inspection and interpretation.

Texts, websites visited, emails sent and received and games played online – all will be probed and stored by the internet service providers (ISPs) by legal compulsion and will be made available on demand to whichever arms of the state want them. It’s said that the exact content of emails and texts will not be read, but duration, destinations and frequencies will be noted.

What They Can Do Already

The Government’s monitoring facility at GCHQ already listens to internet chatter to identify key words that may indicate terrorist or paedophile conversations. People can be placed on no-fly lists if security thinks they present a danger or be deported on often little actual evidence. People’s financial assets can be frozen for something as small as a confused memory. There is almost endless CCTV monitoring in most public buildings, streets, shops, car parks, schools, offices and roads. The data bank is already huge.

The police national data base uses automatic number plate recognition technology, banks and financial organisations keep records for years, if not in perpetuity. ISPs store data for 12 months. Health and prescription records, flights and holidays, cars and big ticket retail sales all provide rich information streams now that can easily be linked to build a detailed profile of every person in the UK.

For and Against

The line goes that such a new big step is needed to help law and order’s ability to fight crime/terrorism in the face of technological advances, social networking and instant messaging. The Security Minister James Brokenshire said that emphasis would be on ‘solving crime’ not reading everybody’s emails.

Opponents point out that similar measures were proposed by the last Labour government in 2006, but were fiercely opposed by both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems as too draconian. Some people are surprised that the Lib Dem part of the Coalition looks as if it accepts these proposals which are the sort of things Liberals have traditionally resisted.

Liberty campaigners generally and across the political divide are roundly condemning the ideas as ‘Big Brother’ and ‘mass surveillance by potentially over-zealous enforcers’ leading to ‘loss of freedom of expression and individual personal privacy’.

Supporters bring up the old argument that ‘law abiding citizens have nothing to fear’ and the nation cannot sit back and do nothing while technology enables its enemies to steal, deceive and invade possessions, people and assets.

Crime Prevention or Money Stream?

Tom Whitehead, Security Editor of the Daily Telegraph wrote on 3 April that it was expected the taxpayer would pick up the bill for the new monitoring, to the tune of £200 million a year, which would mean £380 a minute spent enforcing citizen snooping.

It seems likely that figure would be wide of the mark in the same way that the compulsory ID cards proposed by the last Government rose exponentially over time as doubts about their technological capabilities and loss of privacy took hold.

Whitehead also raised the possibility that local authorities, social security and health departments and anybody investigating any sort of fraud would also have access. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) ‘warned that lives would be damaged by problems of mistaken identity’ and suggested that such profiling could be exploited for commercial reasons.

Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner was reported by Whitehead as saying that ‘the case for the retention of this data still needs to be made. The value of historic communications data in criminal investigations has not yet been elucidated’.

The UK is already the most watched nation on earth and the harvesting of data is a one-way lock that seems to be impossible to release. The police retaining DNA of every person arrested, even of people either not charged or found not guilty, is evidence that officialdom regards it a right to take and store indefinitely data about every aspect of people’s lives.

It is surely the moment for a full and frank debate? Some observers of British politics believe these ideas have been allowed to circulate at this time for all the anti-bluster to be measured and factored in, so that when the real Bill is produced it will be less intrusive and Ministers will claim to have ‘listened to arguments’.

That is either a cynical view or wishful thinking. The fact is that permanent surveillance could be even more severe if not this year, then certainly a few years from now, because technology will only go on making it so.

Further Reading:

 

Image: GCHQ, the Government’s Information-Monitoring Centre

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