Opinion: Is Lord Ashdown the IT industry’s patsy?

Yesterday’s Guardian carried this story:

Privacy rights of innocent people will have to be sacrificed to give the security services access to a sweeping range of personal data, one of the architects of the government’s national security strategy has warned.

Sir David Omand, the former Whitehall security and intelligence co-ordinator, sets out a blueprint for the way the state will mine data – including travel information, phone records and emails – held by public and private bodies and admits: “Finding out other people’s secrets is going to involve breaking everyday moral rules.”

Omand’s frankly terrifying report has been published by the ippr’s Commission on National Security in the 21st Century. What is not reported by the Guardian is who is funding this work (is the maxim ‘follow the money’ really forgotten in journalstic circles 35 years on from Watergate?). Fortunately, the ippr do at least acknowledge this:

ippr would like to thank EDS, Raytheon Systems Ltd, De La Rue and Booz Allen Hamilton for their generous support of the Commission’s activities

Let’s run through all those funders.

  • EDS is one of the government’s main suppliers of ICT services
  • Raytheon Systems Ltd is another technology company with major contracts with the Ministry of Defence
  • De La Rue specialises in security printing, papermaking and cash handling systems
  • Booz Allen Hamilton is a leading strategy and technology consulting firm with numerous US government contracts.

In short, this report has been paid for by the very sector which has a business stake in delivering the databse state which Omand insists must be implemented.

There are serious issues at stake here: firstly, what is it about the state of our media that prevents a journalist from even looking at the inside front cover of a pamphlet he is reporting on to see who is funding the research? The incuriosity of Alan Travis is frankly gobsmacking. I’m not suggesting it invalidates the research, but just as we expect politicians to declare an interest, we should expect it of think tanks as well. This is one of the things that the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency has been seeking to highlight.

But the other issue is a problem for Liberal Democrats, and Lord Ashdown in particular. As co-chair of Commission on National Security his reputation and gravitas clearly opens doors for this report and grants it a respectability it would otherwise not enjoy. Lord Ashdown may disagree with every word of this paper; he has declined the opportunity to clarify this in the report.

In my view this is a pretty untenable position to be in. When it comes to debating security, and in particular its implications for privacy and human rights, it is crucial that any pecuniary interests are made clear from the outset. Otherwise, you risk being a party to the sort of lazy, whitewash journalism that the Guardian article above exemplifies. I am sure that Lord Ashdown is not profiting from this personally, but it does seem extraordinarily naive to allow his name to be used this way on behalf of the industry.

Ultimately, it is hard to reconcile this concept of a 360-degree surveillance state with anything even vaguely resembling liberalism. If Lord Ashdown is at all concerned about the direction we are headed in terms of the erosion of our civil liberties and privacy, he needs to be more scrupulous in making that clear.

Declared interest: James Graham is the Campaigns and Communications Manager of Unlock Democracy, which is a member of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency. He writes in a personal capacity.

Editor’s note: Paddy Ashdown has refuted James Graham’s article in the comments thread here.

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22 Comments

  • I don’t understand how the civil libertarians of yesterday have turned into the people that in the 60s they would have called (with justification) fascists, And what has happened to traditional British bloodymindedness? I remember a Young Liberal campaign against the use of postcodes – maybe that really was the start of dragooning us all into being obedient little citizens parroting “If you’ve got nothing to hide you’ve got nothing to fear”.

  • The added madness is that both theory and practical trials have shown that data mining doesn’t work. You can’t tell the good guys from the bad until they do something bad. So not only is this report scary, it’s downright wrong.

  • Paddy Ashdown 28th Feb '09 - 9:38am

    What sort of Lib Dem organ is it which makes the outrageous charges made in this piece about a fellow Lib Dem without even asking the Lib Dem concerned to comment before hand?

    What sort of Lib Dem organ is it which, having published this kind of article, then closes the comment column so that a response is impossible and forces me to contact the Editor directly to provide a response facility?

    What sort of Lib Dem organ is it which prefers to indulge in wild speculation about a colleague’s integrity – but hasn’t even bothered to look at what he or she has said on the record about, in this case, the Government’s plans to establish an “all seeing IT system”. Just for the record, I first made a speech in the House of Commons warning of the dangers of creating an huge nationwide data base on individuals, in which I predicted the opportunity would soon be available for the Government to know everything about everyone all the time, in, if I recall 1987 (by the way to much derision on all sides).

    I led one of our few Lib Dem Opposition day debates, as Leader in the Commons, on this very subject in 1989, when I said that the choice was for the Government to know have knowledge about everyone, or for citizens to have knowledge about everything and for liberals there could only be one choice to make. I wrote about this in my first book “Citizen’s Britain” and dedicated Party Leader speeches to it. And have continued my opposition to this right up to the present day saying that the Government’s plans for this are dangerous and must be stopped. Indeed I suggested to both Commons and Lords Parties that this would be an excellent Lib Dem Opposition day as we are the only voice now which will oppose this.

    Please tell me what allows the author of this article to ignore all this and write a piece which infers a connection between me and the IT industry (in terms which some might take infer a pecuniary one)? I am not used to being called anyone’s “patsy” by anyone, least of all by a fellow Lib Dem who hasn’t even approached me or taken the trouble to look at the record, instead of indulging in unsubstantiated and unsupported speculation.

    For the record:

    1. Funders of the Commission which I co-chair, which your article did NOT mention, also include:

    DfID
    Cabinet Office
    The Foreign Ministry of Sweden.
    Amnesty International

    2. All funders are required to sign a contract which explicitly forbids them from trying to influence the content of what we publish. As it happens, one funder did try to exert this kind of influence and their money was returned to them immediately and they were immediately showed the door.

    3. The paper is a paper by David Osmand, and is NOT a paper by the Commission. Indeed to make this clear, the following words appear inside the front cover, which again, you took care NOT to quote:

    ‘The views in this paper are those of the author alone and are being published here in the hope of advancing public debate. They do not represent the views of the Commission panel or the views of any sponsoring organisation.’

    Finally and again for the record, I do NOT agree with the Osmand paper and have made that clear to all.

    Lib Dem Voice performs a vital function in the Party. Those with long memories may remember that, during my leadership, I encouraged the creation, through CIX of just this kind of network and used Party and personal funds to help establish it.

    But the fact that you are important and useful does NOT entitle you to publish an article which falls far short of the standards Lib Dems should expect from their fellows, in terms both of journalist professionalism and basic liberal values.

  • Stephen Tall 28th Feb '09 - 10:10am

    Just to reassure Lord Ashdown and LDV readers that the only reason why comments were closed in this instance is because – as advertised here http://www.libdemvoice.org/site-down-time-11830.html – Lib Dem Voice is currently undergoing a major systems upgrade during which time no new articles or comments can be posted.

  • Just to be clear, my initial comment wasn’t directed at Paddy but at Jack Straw, Harriet Harman (who in the past very capably directed the National Council for Civil Liberties), Peter Hain, and all the other sixties radicals who sold out to New Labour authoritarianism.

  • David Allen 2nd Mar '09 - 6:57pm

    Lonely Wonderer has indeed written some calm and balanced comments. Let me try to add to them.

    James comes close to suggesting that no Lib Dem should get involved with business interests when they appear to be gently marketing their wares to government. Well, of course politicians should be wary. But the IT industry aren’t exactly selling cluster bombs. They do have views that need listening to, even if they may also need forceful rebuttal. If we just kept clear of them, we would risk losing touch with what is happening. I suspect Amnesty International paid up so as to keep a careful watch on developments, and perhaps that was Paddy’s motivation too.

    Nevertheless, Lib Dem politicians do need to be wary. That point might have come across more clearly if made more temperately. Sir David Omand has explained to us why he thinks civil liberties are a dead duck if we are to maintain national security. Will the Commission now ask someone to offer an opposing expert opinion on how we can beat Al Qaida without sacrificing liberty?

  • Laurence, one reason for Gates’ millions is that, unlike most charitable trusts, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation does not (or at least, did not until 2007) have an ethical investment policy.

    Gates’ money, which he has admittedly used for some good, has come from investments in schemes which have damaged the environment, caused illness in the poor, and generally countermanded the good that his donations have made.

    Never mind the blood pressure, or that his corporation is a convicted monopolist which repeatedly tries to enslave the world into its markets using Digital Restrictions Management and software patents (both issues on which the Lib Dems fall short, incidentally). Gates’ money is blood money.

  • James, Paul, other contributors, I’d like to add a few points to the discussion you’ve all been having, from my perspective as the Deputy Chair of ippr’s Commission on National Security in the 21st Century. I know the issues raised are important,and what to try to clarify a few things.

    First, whatever else you might feel there is ambiguity over, there can be no ambiguity over this statement inside the paper by David Omand:

    ‘The views in this paper are those of the author alone and are being published here in the hope of advancing public debate. They do not represent the views of the Commission panel or the views of any sponsoring organisation.’

    It’s hard to know how we could be clearer about who’s views are being published here and it does seem unfair to assume that Paddy Ashdown necessarily agrees with it. I don’t agree with all of it myself and it would have been nice if this explicit delimitation of who’s views were being expressed had been acknowledged in the initial post by you James.

    Second, the Commission itself, as a Commission, has only released one paper, its interim report, (Shared Destinies: Security in A Globalised World, available at
    http://www.ippr.org/security) This interim report was signed off by the entire Commission panel, and it is therefore fair to assume that all members of the Commmission panel can be held accountable for what it says. We’d obviously be very pleased if people would read it!

    Third, just to clarify, the report that stimulated this debate, by David Omand, was not published in the week leading up to the Convention on Liberty. It was published on the 9th February. The reason the report received media coverage in the week that it did is that Alan Travis of the Guardian read it in his own time, then published a piece based on it, on a timeline of his and the Guardian’s choosing. His piece was then read and picked up by other journalists, including Andrew Gilligan in the Evening Standard, who also drew the same inaccurate conclusion about when the report had been published and why.

    Fourth, how the Commission is paid for has been made clear by Paddy and by Paul Walters above. Amnesty International come into the picture as sponsors of an upcoming speech on human rights, the details of which, in terms of speaker and timing, are just being ironed out. All details will be on our web-site just as soon as arrangements are finalised.
    This speech forms part of a wider series of security lectures which run alongside and feed thinking into the Commission. Nick Clegg delivered a speech in this series on October 13th 2008 (again, see http://www.ippr.org/security).

    Fifth, I would argue that there is a distinction to be made, (and it is an important one in an open society that needs more informed and civilised debate, not less) between questioning the integrity or naivety of individual commission members and engaging in a legitimate debate about whether this Commission is genuinely independent. Paddy has rightly set out the contractual position the ippr takes with funders in this regard but in the end, it seems to me that the only way to demonstrate independence of view is through what debates this Commission starts and what policies it recommends.

    In this regard, and in addition to the piece by David Omand, I would just ask people to consider the following:

    The recent demolition of torture practices as illegal and dumb, by Commission panel member Charles Guthrie in The Times;

    Our ongoing efforts as a Commission to develop a final report that says something meaningful not just about counter-terrorism but also about what the United Kingdom should do to better promote human rights around the world and more effectively prevent the recurring tragedy of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity;

    The call, in our interim report, for the global eradication of nuclear weapons, and the setting out of a series of steps to help get us there;

    The call, in the same document, for the UK to fully meet its responsibiilty to prevent violent conflict in order to save thousands of innocent lives in some of the poorest countries on earth;

    Our policy proposals on improving global readiness to meet the challenges posed by pandemic disease, and issues raised by 21st century advances in bio-technology which bring huge potential advances for humanity, but also new security concerns.

    I’m not sure which, if any of these activities and proposals serve the interests of the IT industry. But I’d suggest these ideas, and the ideas we publish in our final report later this year are what you should judge us on. We’re all in favour of open debate, hope you’ll read our interim and final reports, and engage us in a lively debate about our final report when we publish. In the end, we’re trying to advance solutions to a range of pressing security challenges and to leave something better for the next generation. While we’re trying and in the interim, if anyone wants to know more about the work of the Commission, or has any great ideas about what we should be recommending, please just get in touch with us at the ippr.
    Best Wishes
    Ian

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