Sunday, January 14, 2007

Sleepwalking Ever Closer

It must have been in 2001, when a friend "J" who worked for the security services told me that we only had to worry about government when it was joined-up.

Now we hear that "A huge Whitehall 'superdatabase' of people's personal details could be created in a bid to improve public services."

It's not a new idea and I vaguely recall giving an interview on the subject five years ago, when I called the initial proposal the "Beria Principle" after Stalin's ruthless spymaster. He would have loved the idea!

The proposal is likely to encounter resistance from civil liberties groups who fear the creation of a 'Big Brother' state and it's a subject I'll be looking at when I chair the 2007 ecrime congress in March.

Information Commissioner Richard Thomas, who will be there, has already warned that Britain may be 'sleepwalking into a surveillance society'.

The database idea has emerged from the Government's policy review on public services, which is headed by Work and Pensions Secretary John Hutton and to be honest, given the awful state of privacy in this country, I have absolutely no faith that such a huge database of personal information will be safe in the hands of government.

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

We are not sleep-walking into a surveillance society; we are already in its insidious clutches.
Recent reports suggest we are the most watched society in the modern world with more cameras monitoring us in the Uk than in the rest of Europe. In our Isle of Thanet Gulag, I am monitored on all main shopping roads in Ramsgate, Broadstairs, Margate and Cliftonville; if I escape the Isle my exit and return is monitored; my visit to any shop is recorded on video; my mobile phone can be used to track me; my use of ATMs and purchases using plastic can be tracked.

In early December I wished to draw £2200 in cash from my bank account in my own branch of Natwest in Cecil Square. There was no question of my identity being in doubt, I have banked there for 20 years, but identity was asked for and I provided passport and driving licence. The cashier disappeared with these and on return I noticed photo-copies attached to a form the cashier then filled out. When I asked what this was all about and who was going to be the recipient of this form, I was given the vague answer that she was required to do this to prevent "money-laundering". I must assume that the security services are now aware of this transaction!

So much for being a law-abiding British subject in Blair's Britain. The only saving grace we have is that the various monitoring systems are providing so much data that Govt inefficiency cannot cope with the mass of'intelligence' it gathers. The danger of this of course is that pre-emptive security is in-effective and the data is only useful after the event in a re-active way. For all the modern surveillence technology at their disposal, the authorities only seem to end up with pretty pictures after the damage is done!

DrMoores said...

Quite right about the money laundering aspect as an excuse. During the "Tackling Organised Crime" congress, the Financial Services industry were complaining bitterly about all the photocopying which creates far more paperwork than an overstretched inland revenue can ever deal with. The quip is of course that if you want to launder serious money, then you but a premier league football club or a similar sized-business and then it's OK!

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't object to surveillance etc IF it meant we lived in a safe and crime free society BUT it doesn't.
There is as much theft, litter, violent assault etc as there ever was in site of these useless cameras etc.
So we have to live not only under the cloud of crime but also under the uncomfortable feeling that we are being watched all the time.
Double Whammy.

Anonymous said...

Given the governments record in IT, I very much doubt that such a large scale project would ever get up and running. Still, I expect someone's brother-in-law with a van load of 'hooky' 386's will make a killing....
As for surveillance, can you imagine how many man-hours it takes to view recorded footage even when you know what your looking for? Fear not, our average lives are most unlikely to be observed except by accident.

Anonymous said...

I am confused about your stance. Only a few days ago you were berating the Government/Civil Service for NOT putting thousands of "records" relating to British citizens convicted abroad onto the Police National Computer - regardless it would seem of their accuracy or completeness ("Track the Motorist not the Murderer"). It is clear that much of this information was of very doubtful accuracy and quality and as you know "rubbish in rubbish out". How would feel if you ended up with a criminal record here as a result of someone with your name and similar/same date of birth being convicted in another Council of Europe member state because the information was not checked. As I understand it the Government has announced a review of how such information is held and communicated both nationally and internationally. Good luck to them. Such a review is long overdue but it is a complete buggers muddle. For instance, nobody seems to have picked up that the present arrangements for the UK to receive formal notification of a British citizens conviction abroad, however inadequate, only apply to some 40 Council of Europe partners. Most of the 11m of so Brits abroad live (and no doubt offend) in America and Commonwealth countries NOT covered by any such formal arrangements as far as I am aware. So you could be convicted in say Australia of serious offences and return to the UK to seek employment with vulnerable groups and a check of police/CRB records would not necessaily flag up the risk. At the same time we have systems here where a person could be on police records as wanted on outstanding arrest warrants, on Immigration records as the subject of a deportation order, on Social Security computers as being in receipt of benefits and on an NHS treatment waiting list. Some joining up of these systems would seem to be sensible to most people but as ever there would need to be a proper balance between the public interest and the rights and protection rightly afforded individuals. I would have thought with your background you would wish to have a constructive input into this debate which cuts across any political divide.

DrMoores said...

It's a complex argument, I agree and comes down to the question of whether we trust government to hold a central database of information with full regard to security and privacy rules. Nobody I know outside of government does!