October 8, 2008
The all-seeing state is about to end privacy as we know it. Plans for a vast central database of our emails, phone calls and texts will see everyone monitored as a potential suspect…
You might suppose that the economic tornado hitting Britain would cause the government to focus its energy and resources very tightly on the political projects that are of undoubted value. This is not, after all, the moment to be wasting either political or financial capital. But you would be wrong. Faced with a crisis that it patently can’t control, the government is instead seeking to exert power where it still can: over us.
The state’s latest plan to watch us makes every other imminent intrusion seem limited. Next month’s Queen’s speech will contain a brief reference to an innocuous-sounding communications data bill. But what this means is the development of a centralised database that will track, in real time, every call we make, every website we visit, and every text and email we send. That information will then be stored and analysed — perhaps for decades. It will mean the end of privacy as we know it.
In the name of the fight against crime, and the fight against terror, we are all to be monitored as if we could be suspects. Computers will analyse our behaviour for signs of deviance. The minute we become of interest to anyone in authority — perhaps because we take part in a demonstration, have an argument with a security guard at an airport, spend too long on a website, or are witness to a crime — the police or the security services will be able to dip into our records and construct a near-complete pattern of our lives.
The shocking element to the new plan is that the authorities want their own database only because they find the current limitations frustrating. Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act rules, the 700 or so bodies already licensed to watch us must make a certified request to phone or internet firms for individual records. More than 500,000 such requests were made last year. But the companies are reluctant to hang on to the data, and the security services would find a single, accessible database so much more convenient.
Stop and consider this for a moment. Think about how happy any of us would be to have our lives laid out to official view. All our weaknesses, our private fears and interests, would be exposed. Our web searches are guides to what is going on in our minds. A married man might spend a lot of time on porn websites; a successful manager might be researching depression; a businessman might be looking up bankruptcy law.
We all have a gulf between who we really are and the face we present to the world. Suddenly that barrier will be taken away. Would a protester at the Kingsnorth power station feel quite so confident in facing the police if she knew that the minute she was arrested, the police could find out that she’d just spent a week looking at abortion on the web? Would a rebel politician stand up against the prime minister if he knew security services had access to the 100 text messages a week he exchanged with a woman who wasn’t his wife? It isn’t just the certainty that such data would be used against people that is a deterrent, it’s the fear. As the realisation of this power grew, we would gradually start living in the prison of our minds.
This is only the worst manifestation of an official intrusion into our lives that is just about to hit us, but of which we seem strangely unaware. The UK’s network of speed cameras will soon be able to track every journey we make by road under the automated number-plate recognition system. Mobile network records can already place us, at any time, within 100 yards of our phone’s location. The ID database will record every time we go to a hospital or a benefit centre, fill in a prescription or a draw a large sum from a bank. The children’s database will give access to every piece of gossip or fact about our children or their family, perhaps in perpetuity. It will record that an older sister may be alcoholic, or that a father is in jail, or that a 14-year-old is thought to be having sex. Nobody will be able to break free of this information about their past.
Most alarming of all, for its breadth of knowledge about us, the NHS database will give hundreds of thousands of staff the ability to discover when we lost our virginity, the drugs we’re on, our mental health history. And none of this information will be safe, because we know three things about the mass collection of data. The first is that the authorities will mine it where it suits them. The second is that the data will be lost. And the third is that it will leak.
Only last month a Revenue & Customs worker was jailed for twice passing the address of a battered woman to her current boyfriend — the woman’s husband. On each occasion, the battered woman and her children had to flee to a new address. That’s the tip of an information iceberg. A couple of years ago the trial of journalists who had hacked into royal phones revealed the existence of a web of hackers, private detectives and dodgy policemen who could effectively gather all there was to be known about a person’s private life. In a very few years there will be much more that could be known, and far fewer defences against it.
The information commissioner, Richard Thomas, warns these changes must be debated because of the dangers that excessive surveillance poses to our way of life. Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti says the latest proposals are “seismic”, and that they will “transform the relationship between the individual and the state”. I’m all for the targeted pursuit of crime and terror, but this isn’t it. This is a multibillion-pound misuse of the state’s time and our money which will fundamentally damage our freedom to think and to act.