In the Queen’s speech this autumn Gordon Brown’s government will announce a scheme to institute a database of every telephone call, email, and act of online usage by every resident of the UK. It will propose that this information will be gathered, stored, and “made accessible” to the security and law enforcement agencies, local councils, and “other public bodies”.
This fact should be in equal parts incredible and nauseating. It is certainly enraging and despicable. Not even George Orwell in his most febrile moments could have envisaged a world in which every citizen could be so thoroughly monitored every moment of the day, spied upon, eavesdropped, watched, tracked, followed by CCTV cameras, recorded and scrutinised. Our words and web searches, our messages and intimacies, are to be stored and made available to the police, the spooks, the local council – the local council! – and “other public bodies”.
This Orwellian nightmare, additionally, is proposed for a world in which leading soi-disant liberal democracies run, and/or permit rendition flights to, Guantanamo Bay. How many steps separate an innocent British citizen from some misinterpretation or interference or error in the collected and ‘made accessible’ data of text messages and emails, and a forthcoming home-grown version of Guantanamo Bay for people whose pattern of phone calls does not fit the police definition of acceptable?
Two things have made this ghastly development possible: the technology, and politicians. The technology is way ahead of the game: Siemens of Germany are already supplying 60 countries with a device that monitors and integrates data from phone, email and internet activity; its software establishes patterns of uses and alerts monitoring staff to deviations from the patterns. As New Scientist reports, the system is already known to throw up huge numbers of false positives; that could have been predicted by a rudimentary acquaintance with human nature and human life. But it is a fact that has to be added to the brilliance and reliability of government and law enforcement agencies in keeping data secure, unhackable and unlosable.
The second point concerns the quality of our politicians. They say they are putting us all under suspicion for our own good. They wish to protect us against terrorists and criminals, and to make bureaucracy more efficient. The efficiency of bureaucracy has one of its finest moments in the neat and sorted piles of false teeth, hair and spectacles at the gas chamber doors. Oh no: better the milling crowd than the police-disciplined queues of bureaucratic efficiency; better the irritation of dealing with human fallibility than the fear of dealing with jack-booted gendarmes whose grip on one’s arms follows stepping out of the queue.
But as to the first matter: protecting us – by making us all suspects, all potential criminals and terrorists – from terrorism and criminality. Well: the first duty of our politicians should be to protect our liberties, and to encourage us to see that liberty carries risks, which we should be trusted to understand and accept so that we can make our own lives our own way. But no: these politicians – Brown and Labour, once the party of the people – are going to keep us safe by not keeping our liberties safe; they are going to keep us safe by making us unfree. Yet the putative benefit of protecting us from terrorism and crime is unattainable. They themselves say ‘there is no 100% guarantee of safety’: but they are going to spy on us all anyway! In fact they are going to create crime: a huge new criminal industry awaits for stealing, copying, falsely creating and manipulating that newly-created precious commodity, “identity”. A huge new impetus awaits for techno-crime to disrupt the monitoring and data storage systems on which the government intends to spend billions of our tax money, creating its unblinking eye in our bedrooms. As surely as night follows day, the new surveillance society will do more harm than good.
The potential for profoundly negative uses of technology has escaped us. It is with despair that I conclude that we have to start all over again with the demos and resistance, the campaigns and arguments, to roll back this huge and ultimately destructive assault on our civil liberties. Once upon a time the authorities worked at frightening everyone into thinking that the unblinking eye of a deity exercised surveillance and data-gathering over them. Now we have Gordon Brown and Siemens, the real thing, not a myth: the unblinking eye of the security services, the local council, “other public bodies”, in our bedrooms, our text messages, our emails, our internet searches. Torquemada and Stalin would have given their right arms for what Gordon Brown will tell us in this autumn’s Queen’s speech he is intending to introduce. Brown has not even thought of that comparison, shame and double shame upon him. Might it help to read the glutinous websites of the Home Office on surveillance and protection of our liberties? Enjoy, if you can: or weep.
Is this adequate to today, before the new universal surveillance comes on stream? Is it adequate to future developments in surveillance technology, to future even less benign governments, to increased “security” powers in actual or alleged future states of emergency? What new crimes, new criminals, new threats to society, will need to be plucked from the watched masses? Smokers? Readers of unauthorised books? Will old crimes return – homosexuality, Catholicism, Jewishness, atheism, adultery, pre-marital sex? Will every individual have to be a tight-lipped, right-thinking, timid, dutiful, obedient, queue-forming clone to escape the censure of the unblinking eye now being opened by the state upon us?
We need to stop this assault on civil liberies going further, we need to roll back the attritions they have already suffered, and we need a rock solid written consitution to protect us from those who aim to make us all suspects in the gaze of the unblinking universal eye.
Tuesday August 26 2008
Source: The Guardian