The Independent View: Statebook – knowledge is power

Launching our spoof Statebook website and campaign this bank holiday, we knew we’d be tapping into a strong and growing public unease about digital privacy.

Data leaks, massive government IT projects and ‘data retention’ are creating a sense that things in this area are going in the wrong direction. Perhaps people aren’t aware of all the details – but they know there’s a problem.

Statebook tries to bridge that gap by illustrating the wealth of information the government already holds on you, and how the government wants to get its hands on even more if it can – popularising the research done for the Rowntree Reform Trust’s Database State report.

How is it that we’ve ended up with so much information about us being amassed in such a haphazard manner by the state, with so many risks of breaches of our our human rights?

There are many reasons of course. For a start, data is easier and easier to collect, store and analyse. That’s usually a good thing, but when it comes to our personal data, it can be different. “Data,” says security expert Bruce Schneier, “is the pollution of the digital age.”

But just because there’s an inherent problem with data accumulation, that doesn’t mean government policy should be to ignore it or make it more intrusive and insecure. Yet that seems to be the way government is headed.

This March, for instance, the government tried to push through clauses in the Coroners’ Bill which would have allowed it share data between agencies on the say so of a Statutory Instrument, without regard to Data Protection rules that require our individual consent. Even the Bar Council found this objectionable. Thankfully, largely because of campaigning by No2ID, this was stopped.

Adding to the mountain of data being kept about us, the Data Retention Directive, in force since 6 April, now requires Internet Service Providers to keep detailed information about who we email, and when we log on and off the internet, for twelve months.

And sometime soon, we are expecting the UK government’s Intercept Modernisation Programme (IMP) which will try to make sure it can collate and analyse this communication data. They may place it all in one giant database, for further analysis and easy access. IMP recently made headlines with the government wanting to see who we message on Facebook, in case we are plotting terrorist activities.

It’s not clear that email and Facebook messages are parallel to phone calls of twenty years ago. They are often closer to gossip in the pub. But because the information exists electronically, and can therefore
potentially be tracked, there is an enormous temptation for government agencies to gather this information.

Part of the temptation is the mistaken belief that it can be usefully be used to identify high risk terrorist suspects through ‘data mining’. But the rarity of such cases means that patterns will inevitably show up so many ‘false positives’ to make this approach useless.

The question for Liberal Democrats and other opposition politicians is whether they are ready to tap into the distinct unease of the public, and make the case for civil liberties.

We are often told that civil liberties are difficult, and voters will rush to throw them away in the face of external threats. But in the face of massive technological change, the decisions we make about our data and personal privacy are clearly becoming a public issue, and a genuine threat to our way of life if handled badly. This is a time for liberty, if we are willing to be bold.

* Jim Killock is Executive Director of the Open Rights Group.

Editor’s note: The Independent View is our slot for individuals and groups with no affiliation to the Liberal Democrats to write articles we believe will be of interest to LDV’s readers.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and The Independent View.

One Comment

  • It’d be nice to see more action at the grass roots on civil liberties from Lib Dems. Local parties are failing to point out the increased Council Tax costs of the National Identity Register, the harm done to local Universities by ID cards for foreign students, and indeed the harm done to their own communities when students can’t get to Uni or graduate without being placed on a tracking database.

    Lack of local action makes a mockery of the Lib Dems’ claim to oppose the Database State.

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