Sound and Fury

Signifying nothing

Big Brother is collating data about you?

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There is an interesting article in today’s Guardian that I’d like to talk about. Jenni Russell is talking about some new database the government wants to set up. She is clearly against the idea. She makes two good arguments very briefly – the database is going to cost a huge amount (“a multibillion pound nuisance”) and the government has done little to restore confidence in its databases security after several high profile leaks and losses of sensitive information.

However the majority of the article is devoted to a rather bad argument. The main thrust of this is that our privacy is being slowly eroded, and that’s a bad thing and we don’t want the government to know all these things about us. The problem is that this is a fairly nebulous criticism and the concrete examples Russell gives are all quite disingenuous. For instance “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?” What does this mean? Presumably the implication is that if he were to stand up to the PM, the PM would make it known that he was having an affair. This is nonsense. It would surely be illegal for the PM to be privy to all this sensitive information on other MPs. All of her examples fall prey to the same criticism. She is suggesting that this information would all be available too widely. Barring leaks and so forth, which is a genuine worry, this information would be available to only those people who have a legitimate reason to look at it. There seems to be an undercurrent of fear-mongering going on in this piece. If, and I find this unlikely, there really were to be a database which could track our internet history, our phone calls and our movements (through speed cameras, CCTV, train tickets purchased etc.) then would that really be such an issue? Most people would never even be investigated, this impossibly vast store of information on us would never be accessed. And if it were accessed it would be more likely to acquit us of any wrongdoing rather than impugn us further.

Also, there is such a thing as too much information. This putative database would have to be huge. And it is unlikely that the information could be organised in a way so as to make it easy to reconstruct someone’s day in detail. If everybody’s every move were in there, such a formidably vast wealth of information would make it hugely unlikely that anyone would stumble across some sensitive nugget that they could use to their advantage, even if it were open to the public.

Everything in this database, it seems, is already available in one way or another to the authorities. Centralising the whole lot seems a rather good idea. As long as safeguards are maintained so that this information does not become available to the wrong people, this can only streamline the process of investigating criminals and other unsavoury types.

I have yet to hear an “in principle” argument against a central database that I find convincing. Obviously the cost and the security are two massive practical points against this database and similar criticisms can be levelled against ID cards, for instance. I don’t feel this is as big an invasion of privacy as it is made out to be. And even if it is, I don’t think that is the terrible terrible thing it is made out to be. I appreciate that in practice this is almost certainly a bad idea, but we should be clear why it is a bad idea – because it is impractically expensive and because it would be tremendously difficult to make it safe enough from leaks and losses. Scaremongering and nebulous charges of “a loss of privacy” are unhelpful.


Written by Seamus

October 8, 2008 at 3:31 pm

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One Response

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  1. Seamus,

    First, let me thank you for your blog. I’ve really enjoyed rambling through it.Now, on to the matter at hand.

    Perhaps this is a difference in our countries of origin – U.K. for you I assume, and U.S. for myself. It also may be due to the difference in our ages and the literature that dominated our formative years.

    The first point is that, historically, there are few things more dangerous to any citizen than their own government. All you have to do is look back (usually to times of civil war or great internal division) and note the death toll at those times. Since the government has easy access to it’s own citizens, (no standing army other than the government’s protects them), the possible, and eventually pretty inevitable danger well exceeds those of foreign powers or internal enemies.

    Now possibly you feel that there is no way a democracy can find itself in this predicament, but, to quote one political pragmatist “You can fool all of the people some of the time”, or certainly enough to be elected. Sometimes for multiple terms.

    Probably the most potent weapon that any modern government fields at this stage in history is information. The modern development of the computer was hurried along to crack enigma codes. At least in the US, our code/information arm is one of the larger agencies in our government. This is not a misplaced priority, it is an acknowledgement of information’s place in the ability to attack and defend.

    Now, we may look at our respective countries, and feel that “good people” will “do the right thing”. This would be great if it happened, but personally, before allowing the creation of such a powerful weapon system, the system of its use and control need to be thought out carefully, and the implications of such a system thought through. Of course, this opinion may be due to my country of origin, but I commend the following thought:

    “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”


    December 16, 2008 at 3:44 pm

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