The Independent View: How do we stop the growth of the surveillance state?

From any dispassionate view, it’s clear that the Liberal Democrats have consistently believed that the protection of our right to privacy is vital for a free and open society.

However, protecting that fragile right is a complex process that requires genuine and tangible policy objectives that will make a real difference. To reverse the rise of surveillance is a task that goes to the heart of how we are governed. Making a real difference will require a courageous agenda of change that reaches deep into the powerful institutions of parliament and government.

There is no doubt in the mind of caring people that the growth of huge data systems must be reined in. Those systems are simply unwieldy and dangerous, and their existence is too often nurtured by laziness and incompetence. It is equally true that steps must be taken to stem the scandalous rate of loss of personal information. However these two crucial elements are merely symptomatic of a much deeper problem. The lust to acquire personal information has now permeated every part of our society and economy and must be brought to a halt.

The Liberal Democrats have already committed to a number of important measures to protect privacy and resist the growth of surveillance. These include scrapping the national ID card system and ensuring that all new data sharing proposals are subject to primary legislation. However much more needs to be done to ensure an immediate and resounding impact on the growth of surveillance and the leakage of personal privacy.

To begin, no major system involving personal information should be created until it has been subject to a wide ranging public consultation, a thorough analysis by the Information Commissioner and scrutiny by a parliamentary committee or independent inquiry. These processes must be fully public. The Information Commissioner must also be given the power to prohibit the development of systems that do not adequately protect personal privacy or which intrude unnecessarily into private life. The present powers given to the Commissioner do not permit him to issue a prohibition notice on execution of such proposals.

At least some of the excesses of surveillance could be reined in were the government forced to show its hand with regard to compliance with the Human Rights Act. Presently decisions by the European Court on Human Rights are all too often thwarted by foul play. One simple yet highly significant improvement would be to amend legislation to ensure that all legal advice obtained by government relating to Human Rights Act compliance with regard to privacy will be made public in a timely manner and before allocation of budget. Section 35 of the Freedom of Information Act currently exempts the disclosure of such advice.

Finally, something must be done about the bogus justification for many surveillance powers. Parliament must make a bold move to legislate to strictly define the meaning and the parameters of “national security” to ensure that this term is not used as a false pretext. On a whim and without scrutiny, the Home Secretary can currently issue a certificate declaring that national security exemptions apply to a broad range of information uses.

It will be difficult for any government to give privacy back to its people, but small steps such as these would be a positive and encouraging beginning.

Simon Davies is Director of the watchdog Group Privacy International and is a member of the Liberal Democrat Privacy Commission. The views expressed here are his own.

‘The Independent View’ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you’re interested in contributing.

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6 Comments

  • Andrew Suffield 20th Jan '10 - 5:19pm

    To begin, no major system involving personal information should be created until it has been subject to a wide ranging public consultation, a thorough analysis by the Information Commissioner and scrutiny by a parliamentary committee or independent inquiry.

    Doesn’t that already happen? The problem is that the government tends to either pervert the analysis to recommend pre-determined legislation, or just ignore it completely and ram through what they wanted via the whip. What we need are some sort of (constitutional?) requirements for impartial analysis and limits on Parliament’s power to ignore them.

  • Don’t forget that opposing the Database State requires more than just taking particular political opinions, it requires practical action as well. Donating or supporting No2ID, which organises dozens of events nationwide every week, is a good start. Other suggestions include supporting Privacy International itself, and getting involved with the Open Rights Group’s campaigns against Internet censorship and snooping.

  • Put this one on the front page of your maifesto,its a definite winner with wide appeal,guaranteed to go down well with the criminal fraternity.

  • Of course, john, everybody who has concerns for privacy is clearly a criminal, and it’s impossible to combat crime without trampling over civil liberties! Come back, David Blunkett, all is forgiven…

  • One word: Constitution.

  • John Zims:

    Clearly, you disagree with your former home affairs spokesman, David Davis, and your former cabinet minister, Peter Lillie, who persuaded the Major government not to proceed with ID cards.

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