Sunday, October 26, 2008

UK government could learn from the Stasi

The report last week of the proposal of a compulsory national register for everyone who owns a mobile phone in the UK harks back to the era of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania. There, everyone who owned a typewriter had to have it registered, so that any anti-government literature could be traced to the person who typed it.

GCHQ wants to keep a database of every single phone call, email and website accessed by the general public. The presence of millions of anonymous prepaid cellphone accounts interferes with this. This is being sold, obviously, on the basis that "terrorists and criminals" are the ones with such accounts, because obviously if you're innocent, why would you fear such surveillance? That, you see, is the answer of every defender of dictatorship.

You shouldn't fear the state, unless you have a good reason to do so, and a good reason obviously is because you've done something wrong.

Simon Jenkins in his final Sunday Times column makes a plea for liberty. He notes:
- Privacy International put Britain bottom of the European league for surveillance and civil intrusion (A mistake as Belarus would be lower, he means EU);
- The "interception modernisation programme" is budgeted at £12 billion, on top of ID cards;
- How 25 million child benefit recipients had their personal details, addresses and bank accounts lost by the state;
- How the anti-terror laws have been used to seize Icelandic bank assets, and for councils to monitor rubbish disposal by residents;
- the Association of Chief Police Officers warned that collecting so much data was "a real threat to the individual".

Virtually nobody defends the innocent British citizen from this Stasi like growth in state surveillance. It is fueled by a pernicious infectious desire by security services to "know more", be "more intelligent", to be "more responsive" oblivious to who they are serving and why. It ignores the sheer incompetence of such a state, and its complete lack of accountability when it gets it so very wrong - my mismatching data, by leaking it, and most of all by accusing the innocent.

Jenkins concludes:

"The war on terror has been a wretched blind alley in British political history. It has revealed all that is worst in British government – its authoritarianism, its sloppiness and its unaccountability. Yet restoring the status quo ante will be phenomenally hard.

In all my years of writing this column, from which I am standing down, I have been amazed at the spinelessness of Britain’s elected representatives in defending liberty and protesting against state arrogance. They appear as parties to the conspiracy of power. There have been outspoken judges, outspoken peers, even outspoken journalists. There have been few outspoken MPs. Those supposedly defending freedom are whipped into obedience. I find this ominous."

However, I expect few will do anything. The Conservatives get sold this snake oil on the basis that it fights criminals. Labour gets sold on it making the state "more efficient in delivering services". The public shrugs it off and doesn't care. The criminals care even less. After all, what nincompoop in Whitehall thinks registering prepaid cellphones will stop criminals getting falsely registered or unregistered ones? Ah, so there needs to be more surveillance...

(Check out the NZ ranking by Privacy International here)

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