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Posts Tagged ‘privacy

NO2ID – Nothing to hide, nothing to fear?

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NO2ID’s hard-hitting video on the dangers of data abuse

Many summers ago I had a temp job as a clerk at a private bank where a number of big-name celebrities held an account. The amiable chap I was working for was just a couple of years older than me, and seemed pretty comfortable in his job, though it was obvious that he found the work inordinately dull. One of the ways he liked to liven things up was to look through the personal details of the bank’s famous clients, and on occasions make prank calls to the private numbers that he’d dug out of the files.

As he was a music fan, millionaire ageing rock stars came in for particular attention. Within days of my starting he’d (amiably) shown me around Paul McCartney’s bank account and told me with pride of his habit of calling up the lead singer of Led Zeppelin, whispering “Robert Plant, ha ha ha!” and then hanging up.

A few years later, soon after the death of my sister, we got a knock on the door from the Daily Mail. We had long been ex-directory, and were being meticulously careful about our contact with the media, but the Mail had managed to track us down nonetheless. For years I was mystified about how they might have done it, and it was only when I read Nick Davies’s “Flat Earth News” that I found a plausible answer. Tabloid newspapers had long been in the habit of paying private investigators to track down people they wanted to contact, and it was an open secret that the PIs were bribing civil servants at the DVLA to hand out people’s personal details. Anyone who earned a legally-registered car could be found by the Sun or the Mail at a few hours’ notice. Maybe that was how they found us.

I was reminded of all of this yesterday when I had a fascinating chat with Phil Booth, the national co-ordinator of the NO2ID campaign. The standard reply to anyone who objects to compulsory ID cards, and the attendant mega-database that the government plans to introduce, is that only those with something to hide will have something to fear from it. But this relies on the assumption that every official with access to the database can be trusted to behave with absolute integrity at all times. No-one will ever be tempted to look up the details of their favourite (or least favourite) celebrity and make prank calls to them. No-one will ever take a bribe from a tabloid journalist, or an identity-fraudster, or a deranged ex-husband looking to settle a grudge.

According to NO2ID, the government databases that currently exist are already being used in unauthorised ways on a massive scale. A monthly audit of just one local authority database reportedly found thousands of instances of data being used in ways beyond that originally intended and authorised. Many of the infringements were no doubt minor, but the sheer volume clearly highlights the huge gap between the intended purpose of a government “power” and the practical reality of its use.

It’s this gap between intention and reality that the “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” mantra fails to address. As I argue in “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, one deeply engrained feature of the human psyche seems to be a tendency to over-estimate – sometimes catastrophically – our capacity to control what goes on in the world – and to under-estimate the potential for unintended consequences.

We assume that making something illegal – be it the use of drugs or the abuse of our personal data – is the same thing as stopping it from happening. We assume that giving the authorities unfettered power to detain, torture or even kill those suspected of engaging in some social evil – be it drugs, crime or terrorism – will a) make the problem better rather than worse b) only affect those who’ve been up to no good. Time and again we remain blind to the gap between intention and reality until thousands of innocent people have already been subjected to horrific abuses.

The phrase “nothing to hide” works so well as propaganda because – like many good propagandistic phrases – it means two entirely separate things. “Nothing to hide” is generally taken to be synonymous both with “doing nothing wrong”, and with “no secrets from anyone”. Yet there are plenty of people who have done nothing wrong but might nonetheless have very strong reasons for wanting to keep some things secret from somebody. As NO2ID points out, these include:

those fleeing domestic abuse; victims of “honour” crimes; witnesses in criminal cases; those at risk of kidnapping; undercover investigators; refugees from oppressive regimes overseas; those pursued by the press; those who may be terrorist targets.

A series of embarrassing data breaches have shown how hard the government finds it to keep our personal details secure even now. The more information is stored centrally, and the more people can access it, the more opportunity for abuse and incompetence there will be – with potentially very serious consequences for those who, quite legitimately, do have something to hide.

And neither are we bound to accept that there is anything intrinsically wrong, in and of itself, with wanting to keep things about ourselves secret. The assumption often underlying discussions about the government’s uber-database plan seems to be that the onus is on opponents to explain why we shouldn’t be required to surrender all of our personal information to the authorities, rather than on the government to explain why this move is actually necessary.

At the heart of all this is a fundamental question of principle over who “owns” our personal data, and who is best placed to keep it secure. After half an hour speaking to Phil Booth, I’m more convinced than ever that, both on the principles and the practicalities, this government is fighting a losing battle.

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Written by Richard Wilson

December 13, 2008 at 11:45 am

Outgoing chief prosecutor warns against “mediaeval delusions” and “the paraphernalia of paranoia”

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Ken MacDonald, the outgoing chief prosecutor of England and Wales, has warned against paranoid fears over terrorism being used to justify giving the government ever more “sweeping powers”, the BBC reports.

“We need to take very great care not to fall into a way of life in which freedom’s back is broken by the relentless pressure of a security state”, he said in his final speech.

Following the heavy defeat of government proposals to allow itself to detain people for 42 days without charge, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has announced plans to create a giant database to monitor the telephone, email and internet usage of everyone in the UK – ostensibly on the basis that this will help to fight terrorism. Opposition parties have described the plan as “Orwellian”.

In his speech, Ken Macdonald urged resistance to what he called the “paraphernalia of paranoia”:

“Of course, you can have the Guantanamo model. You can have the model which says that we cannot afford to give people their rights, that rights are too expensive because of the nature of the threats we are facing.

“Or you can say, as I prefer to, that our rights are priceless. That the best way to face down those threats is to strengthen our institutions, rather than to degrade them.

“We would do well not to insult ourselves and all of our institutions and our processes of law in the face of these medieval delusions.”

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again” I look at the strange nexus between journalists who whip up public fears over terrorism in order to sell more newspapers, and politicians who exaggerate the threat so as to justify their demands for ‘sweeping powers’ to invade our privacy, evade public scrutiny, and control our behaviour.

Jenni Russell on the UK government’s crisis of trust

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From Jenni Russell in The Guardian:

Only four months ago, when Smith gave a speech to the Smith Institute on the necessity of parliament’s shoving through the imminent plans for 42-day detention, the tone was much more disdainful. Then we, the audience, were given an imperious lecture that amounted to: We know what the threat is and you don’t, so we must be given whatever powers we need. I said at the time that listening to the speech was like wrestling mentally with jelly. Other than “trust us, we’re the government”, there wasn’t much of an argument involved.

Now, of course, thanks to the Lords, the opposition, the Labour rebels and vociferous opponents around the country, No 10 and the Home Office have had to learn a little humility. Bullying and threatening hasn’t been enough to get the key measures it sought, like 42 days and secret coroners’ inquests, past parliament. And since the government now plans a surveillance project that will dwarf anything that has gone before – a giant database that will track every call, text, email and web visit that we make – they have been forced, belatedly, into attempting to persuade us a little more and hector us a little less.

On the evidence of this speech, the strategy is not having much success. Persuasion is all about emotion backed up with argument, and the emotion was still reserved for “we know best; we truly do!” while the arguments still weren’t there.

Since the last few years of Tony Blair’s time in Downing Street there has been much agonising from the Labour leadership over the decline of public trust in politicians. This is a problem, we are told, because without our being able to take the government at its word on at least some things, the effective functioning of the state becomes impossible. The public therefore ought to be more trusting of politicians, and the current mood of scepticism is clearly – according to Alastair Campbell – the fault of the media.

The very fact that the government seriously expects us to be swayed by this kind of argument seems, to me, to illustrate the real problem with painful clarity. Democracy is clearly in trouble when voters feel the need to be suspicious of every public statement that their government makes on any remotely controversial issue – just as your relationship with your doctor or dentist would be under considerable strain if you felt that you were dealing with a mendacious quack trying to rip you off at every turn.

It seems that the government is asking us to believe that the solution to our democratic crisis is simply for voters to set their doubts aside and trust in the political class again – despite all the examples of state mendacity we’ve seen in recent years. But this seems akin to expecting a patient who’s repeatedly been juiced by their dentist to deal with their concerns simply by suppressing them – and then handing over their money for yet another appointment.

It seems to me the wiser course of action would be to start looking around for a better dentist – and perhaps also seek to get the old one struck off, to stop him from doing more damage in future…

Written by Richard Wilson

October 18, 2008 at 10:31 am