Sunday, 4 January 2009

Big Brother Government

Everytime I meet a senior Police Officer I feel the urge to ask if they have read George Orwell's book 'Big Brother', or Mill's 'On Liberty' or Milton's ' Areopagitica' so far I have resisted the temptation, but I have been sorely tempted.

Today there is frightening assumption that the fear of terrorism is a justification for the erosion of liberty and worse still once an exceptional measure has been enacted to deal with the 'terrorist' threat' there really is not reason why it shouldn't be rolled out to cover millions of citizens who aren't terrorists.
Bob Marshall Andrews recently wrote about his interview with the Labour Chief Whip seeking to cajole him into the government lobbies:
'I had been invited to her room to discuss my my persistent failure to support the Government on legislation concerning human rights. It was not an unfriendly meeting. I expressed the view that the continued and continuous erosion of individual and political freedom would prove disastrous at the ballot box. She smiled wearily with disbelief. "People in my constituency don't give a damn about civil liberties," she said.

There were three depressing things about this statement. The first is the remote possibility that it may be true. The second is that she firmly believes it is true and the third is that she obviously approves of it. In her view the collective indifference of her constituents chimes precisely and accurately with Government policy.............................

The aversion to traditional freedoms reflects a more fundamental belief that modern politics are not about principle, but populism and prejudice. At the heart of this psephology stands Mondeo Man, the famous, symbolic, unprincipled voter invented by Tony Blair. This car-polishing political animal is, according to the prophets of New Labour, motivated entirely by self-interest and individual advancement as opposed to the collective or communal good. To this individual, it is said, universal civil liberties, the ultimate collective values, are the subject of indifference, even contempt. He (or she) "doesn't give a damn.'

Interestingly that is very similar to the views expressed to me by a senior policemen. He began by asserting that he couldn't see a problem about the police cameras with ANPR (automatic number plate recognition) forming a 'ring of steel' around the borough so that most vehicle movements could be tracked. The information could be kept for up to 5 years and the system was linked 80 other data bases but he confidently went on ' if you've nothing to hide I can't see the problem'. Of course the proposal now is for there to be a new mega national data base for ANPR cameras. Big brother is watching you.

We have all heard of the government plans for another mega data base for our personal, private communications. All the broadsheet media carried the story again recently and most revealing was this :

'The private sector will be asked to manage and run a communications database that will keep track of everyone's calls, emails, texts and internet use under a key option contained in a consultation paper to be published next month by Jacqui Smith, the home secretary.' in full here

I was taken by the comments of Sir Ken Macdonald, the former Director of Public Prosecutions who has had first hand experience of the government machine. He dealt with the issue of authorisation-another issue where my policemen didn't really see a problem an said:

"Authorisations for access might be written into statute. The most senior ministers and officials might be designated as scrutineers. But none of this means anything," said Macdonald. "All history tells us that reassurances like these are worthless in the long run. In the first security crisis the locks would loosen."

My policemen thought everything was ok because a superintendent, chief superintendent or some such had to authorise access; a man of rank and therefore trustworthy.

The cost of present day surveillance has been put at £20billion. The cost of the email/text etc data base is said to be £12billion.

Now my bobby thought that if you asked the man in the street he would back cameras, so that was ok. In so doing he rather confirmed Bob Marshall Andrew's point that politics had become about ' not about principle, but populism and prejudice'. The bludgeoning of the few by the many.

So what to do? Well firstly the legislation must catch up with the new technology. My bobby boasted that his system was governed by the highest standard. A little digging unpacked that bit of spin to reveal that they obeyed the law! Well sadly there is no law about privacy and ANPR cameras a fact which the Information Commissioner has pointed out in two consecutive annual reports to parliament-and was a concern to Select Committees of both houses of Parliament.

Next read a bit more about it here and then sign up here. And while you are in the mood and by way of amusement have a look at what Norman Baker found out about the mission creep that inevitably infects police action here. Mind you David Howarth discovered an even more sinister fact about police action and spin and mission creep here.

Personally I wouldn't be so sure that all this Big Brother stuff is popular. David Davis's by- election may have been fought on a rather narrow understanding of freedom but his forthright opinions on the issue of 42 days detention without trial and the issues dealt with in this articles does suggest that there is a wide spread concern about these matters. The cost and ineffectiveness of the proposal linked to their intrusion into the legal activities of free citizen's may not be as much to the liking of the people as some would wish.