This nightmarish lust for our personal data

Convention on Modern Liberty“Under Labour’s plans for transformational government,” wrote Henry Porter in March 2008,
“an almighty surveillance structure is envisaged, through which the state will know ‘a deep truth about the citizen based on their behaviour, experience, beliefs, needs or desires.”

The British government plans bear striking similarities to statements found in a secret EU Council Presidency paper obtained by FOI campaigner Statewatch. “Every object the individual uses, every transaction they make and almost everywhere they go will create a detailed digital record. This will create a wealth of information for public security organisations …”.

The report, by a shadowy EU ‘Future Group’, discussed a range of extremely controversial measures that include advanced surveillance techniques and enhanced cooperation with the United States.

Privacy under attack
According to Porter, the concept of the Englishman’s home as castle, so dear to Charles Dickens and the Victorians, is no more. New regulations enable bailiffs to offer violence against householders even within their homes. To anyone who has had experience of the Neanderthal behaviour of bailiffs and their kind in the private security industry, such ideas are terrifying.

The dangers to democracy inherent in such laws have been picked up by Council of Europe (CoE) Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg, in a CoE press release on 4th December 2008. “Freedom has been compromised in the fight against terrorism after 11 September. Government decisions have undermined human rights principles with flawed arguments about improved security …. Not only terrorism, but also our reactions to it pose a long-term, ingrained threat to human rights. The time has come to review steps taken to collect, store, analyse, share and use personal data.”

New Bill of Rights needed?
Attacks on ancient and hallowed common-law rights in Britain have now gone so far, Porter believes, that a new UK Bill of Rights is imperative. But it should be, he says, a Bill of Rights that draws its potency from British traditions and culture such as the settlements of 1689 and Magna Carta, and insisting, for example, on the right to trial by jury, which is not found in European-level charters and conventions.

He debunks the myth of [UK] Parliamentary sovereignty as the protector and guarantor of a free society. “Parliament is obviously not sovereign,” he writes, “because the executive runs everything. The government decides on and schedules parliamentary business, appoints the chairs of select committees and controls and smothers debate by means of standing orders and standing committees. The truth is that Parliament can offer the public little effective protection because it is itself in the thrall of the executive.”

A lost respect for ordinary people
But what of those of us living in continental Europe? What safeguards can we activate to protect ourselves from an executive on steroids?

The problem, it seems, stems from a fundamental lack of respect in government circles for simple principles of fairness and tolerance that many ordinary people still hold dear, a belief that the best kind of society is a gentle society, and that civilisation is only worthy of the name if it makes civilised behaviour and interaction possible.

It may be that many of us fall short of the mark when faced with the challenge of pulling up those who are most disruptive of civilised norms. Yet government is expected to set an example. It is not expected to peer at us round corners, to hector us from lamp-posts if we do wrong, or to listen to everyday conversations in the street. It should not have the right to pry into our private thoughts and conversations when we are going about our lawful business.

Government should not need to unleash vile technology such as the poisonous flying drones, originally developed for the military, against civilians. It should not need to harass, torment and attempt to destabilise the lives of those who hold independent opinions simply on the say-so of secretive and unaccountable security organisations. It should not need to behave as a repressive state.

Redressing the balance
Such actions reveal an executive that has lost respect for the guiding power of the legislature, and a legislature that is, as Porter says, in thrall to the bullying power of the executive. They show that the servant has taken over the master.

Perhaps Porter is correct, and in the UK a new Bill of Rights is necessary in order to redress the rights of theindividual. Perhaps we on the continent could benefit from the development of similar rights to trial by jury. And certainly some steps are needed to limit the powers of state agencies that have over-reached themselves.

Can such attempts to redress individual rights develop concrete form? I don’t know, but I hope, along with many others, that the Convention on Modern Liberty, in London on 28th March 2009, will help find out.

Revealed: the full extent of Labour’s curbs on civil liberties (The Independent).

© Philip Hunt, 2009.

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