The right to privacy: “in a country born on the will to be free, what could be more fundamental than this?”

With news today of yet further alleged intrusion into private citizens’ communications — GCHQ taps fibre-optic cables for secret access to world’s communications (Guardian) — here’s how The West Wing anticipated the past week’s furore…


(Available on YouTube here.)

Sam Seaborn: It’s not just about abortion, it’s about the next 20 years. In the ’20s and ’30s it was the role of government. ’50s and ’60s it was civil rights. The next two decades are going to be privacy. I’m talking about the Internet. I’m talking about cell phones. I’m talking about health records and who’s gay and who’s not. And moreover, in a country born on the will to be free, what could be more fundamental than this?

“In a country born on the will to be free, what could be more fundamental than this?” In the UK our (real-life) politicians are more likely to be found saying “If you have nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear”. As I’ve asked before in response to this statement:

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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13 Comments

  • Shame but true Freedom Free Country are illusions we are heavily controlled just look at this response I cannot make this comment without putting a name and email WHY if iv free speech unfortunately both labour an this coalition government have curtailed freedoms and will go further to in the name of security safety of public a lot is well OTT but we have more freedom than some countries but have no illusion we are not free We even have our Government allowing not protesting and in fact colluding with foreign governments to spy on this countries people that’s scary and yet no one is speaking out about it

  • The question for security-fundamentalists is simply this: what does a “right to privacy” look like in your world of near-total surveillance. It is time for an honest answer by the Lord Carlisles of this world.

  • M’mm, don’t want to say too much here, you never know who is looking ;) NOT funny though , is it, something we need to fight and fight again, to keep what privacy we can.

  • Tony Dawson 23rd Jun '13 - 9:18am

    The questions which need to be put are these:

    Does this process generate useful information in any meaningful way?
    Is the information held safely and securely?
    Ca we trust those searching and holding this information to:
    (a) know who our country’s enemies really are?
    (b)target the right people?
    (c) not lose or sell-on information to powerful interests?
    (d) not change their minds ten times a year as to who the ‘targets’ really are as it suits them?

    How much is this costing and what are the benefits? What else could be done with the money instead?

    Why should British democracy and the British people trust ante-post justifications for their actions put forward by snoopers who decided to embark upon this massive exercise without subjecting their actions to consideration /scrutiny by British democracy and the British people?

  • Hmm, I suspect most people, if asked, would say that democracy, accountability and the rule of law is more important than privacy.

    In fact privacy is often harmful, drug companies covering up data, hospital managers covering up neglect, police covering up the infiltration of protest groups, politicians covering up ongoing policy disasters.

    Information needs to be free.

    The West Wing was always ideological, utopian crap written by people for whom politics is about the best method of displaying ones own moral superiority than actually trying to hold a society together.

  • Stuart Mitchell 23rd Jun '13 - 12:07pm

    Latest reports claim that Edward Snowden is heading for that well known haven of freedom and civil rights –Russia. Meanwhile Julian Assange remains holed up as the guest of a government which was widely condemned in its own country last week for imposing authoritarian restrictions on the freedom of the media.

    For all their faults, the US and UK governments provide their citizens with higher levels of freedom than you would find virtually anywhere else.

    Regarding the latest revelations on surveillance – how exactly is this happening on the Lib Dems’ watch? Didn’t you lot promise us less of this kind of thing, not more?

  • Stuart Mitchell

    I don’t think he is looking to be a paragon for openness – what he is possibly doing is trying to avoid extradition to the USA where we have seen its attitudes to people who expose its potentially illegal covert operations is not particularly open and democratic.

    In general we have more freedoms, but in the end who knows what is being monitored and that leads to the question should we regard Snowden as being a hero for exposing this information or not.

    It seems the technological revolution and globalisation has opened up a Pandora’s Box of morality . Should our Governments behave like those in China and Russia when it comes to espionage and monitoring activity as without it we are at an economic or military disadvantage.

    It shows again another race to the bottom beckons

  • andrew purches 23rd Jun '13 - 1:17pm

    If you do not want your shtick to cause you shtook, then keep shtoom.

  • Tony Dawson 23rd Jun '13 - 5:08pm

    @Stuart Mitchell:

    “For all their faults, the US and UK governments provide their citizens with higher levels of freedom than you would find virtually anywhere else.”

    A poor call. There are plenty of European countries which have higher values and implement them. And, officially, both the UK and US governments hold these values, also. It’s just that we allow our big chunks of our countries to be run by self-perpetuating self-justifying unaccountable hypocrites.

  • Stuart Mitchell 24th Jun '13 - 9:29am

    @Tony
    Most European countries – including many in the West – have been ruled by dictators within living memory.

    Britain on the other hand has tended to be immune from despotism, as has the US. You will no doubt scoff at this, but it is a fact.

    Don’t you think it’s interesting that Snowden and Assange’s destination of choice is a country which has just enacted a law giving the government ultra-authoritarian powers of the media? Are these people really remotely bothered about freedom, or are they just opportunist anti-Americans?

    http://www.freedomhouse.org/blog/ecuadors-new-law-dispels-myth-media-democratization-latin-america

  • Finally. Finally! A Liberal Democrat response to an issue that’s been in circulation for, what, three weeks now? The silence has been embarrassing.

    I want to know the following:

    1 – did Clegg (and co) know about this?
    2 – if yes, did he have any plan in place to respond in a manner befitting a ‘liberal’?
    3 – what’s he going to do about it now?

    If it transpires that he was in the dark, and that Cameron was not, then I trust he’ll break the coalition as soon as possible.

    Stuart Mitchell – Assange and Snowden are seeking refuge in the only places that will host them, which, regrettably, means going to Ecuador and the like. They deserve the support of anyone who doesn’t regard ‘1984’ as a manual for good governance.

    (That’s not to say that I don’t think Assange should stand trial for the rape accusations.)

  • Actually, if you look here:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/24/edward-snowden-booked-on-plane-from-moscow-to-havana-live-coverage

    it’s not clear where Snowden is or where he is going. And Beijing may have forced him out of Hong Kong.

  • Following on from Mpg’s comment, we also need to ask about what are appropriate legal protections for whistleblowers/witnesses to when those who do the surveillance overstep the mark.

    What has been irritating about Edward Snowden’s revelations, is how little the mass media and politicians have picked up on the substance and started the debate – currently they all seem focused on the witness’es whereabouts. I would of expected the LibDem’s own Internet Hero Julian Huppert to have been more visible.

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