October 01, 2007

Nam et ipsa scientia potestas est

The title of this entry, ‘knowledge is power’ (roughly translated), may sound fatuous, or even pretentious considering that it is in the original Latin used by Francis Bacon in his 1597 Meditationes Sacræ – De Hæresibus. It is, however, something which, although everyone knows the concept, seems to be little-understood in its full depth. Indeed, the largest entity in this country which seems to understand the full extent to which knowledge is power is the government. Why else would they go to such extents to gain knowledge of others and to guard so carefully knowledge of themselves?

Today, the government announced that information about ‘phone calls and text messages will be held for a year and be made available to 652 public bodies. Source. This means, in effect, that if you call someone from your mobile, for the next twelve months, a local council at the other end of the country, or the Food Standards Agency, or the Gaming Board can get information on whom you called, when, how long the call lasted, and where you were when you made the call. This is all under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which has been labelled a ‘snooper’s charter’ by Civil Liberties campaigners and allows some data collected on various activities to be given to a wide range of organisations including Job Centres and the Chief Inspector of Schools. Under this framework, various organisations including ‘phone companies and ISPs are legally compelled to collect and store data on their users’ activities for a set amount of time and to make them available to a specified list of organisations if required. A lot of people seem not to know or to care about this, but in effect, we are all under constant monitoring, and are only saved closer attention by the fact that there are so many of us that it is not possible to watch everyone all the time. Any sense of privacy you feel when using the internet or speaking on the ‘phone is essentially illusory, because your service provider is keeping a record of your activity and they are obligated to hand that record over to a host of bureaucrats if asked to do so.

This is just part of the basis for the current manifestation of what has always been a part of society, which is people watching each other. In times past, the means were less official and less sophisticated and tended to be limited to local gossip, but they essentially ensured that in most communities everyone knew everyone else’s business, and everyone else’s family scandals over the past three generations. These days, people within communities don’t know so much about each other anymore, but this void has been filled by more official, more ambitious, and better equipped snoopers acting within a legislatory framework. Whilst real privacy has always been at a premium, there is far more information held on us these days as a matter of course than has ever been held before. Part of this is because, due to technology, there is now more scope to collect, store, and search this information, and thus our actions are increasingly through more high-tech media which necessarily involve a third party who can collect information on the other two. However, people have always hated to have their private affairs intruded upon by people who have no business interfering – just look at how unpopular gossips have always been. Yet here, we have snooping on a grand scale and no one turns a hair. Why is this?

Part of this may be that people seem to have the odd notion that there is some kind of division between what happens through media of communication such as computers and telephones, and what happens in real life within the sphere of their personal perceptions. Thus people will happily post all kinds of personal details online on social networking websites etc., even though they would never in real life dream of getting up in a shopping centre with a megaphone and shouting out intimate details of their lives, which amounts to pretty much the same thing. Thus, if they are aware of all the information which is held concerning their use of the internet or ‘phones, they seem to separate this entirely from real life and become blasé about the fact that the state seems to value their privacy so little. It’s as if, in real life, the state held records on whom you had conversations with, where, and for how long, what books and newspapers you read, and what you watched on TV. Yet people either don’t know or don’t care that such intrusive surveillance is allowed.

As if this wasn’t enough, our real life movements are also watched the moment we set foot outside our houses. CCTV cameras in this country abound, to such an extent that at a rough estimate, there is one CCTV camera in this country for every 14 people. Source. This, together with the scary innovation of talking CCTV cameras (which sound suspiciously like the telescreens which appear in 1984) makes us one of the most watched societies in the world. Yet a lot of the time this is simply blithely accepted because we are told that CCTV cameras help fight crime. Yet if you think about it, the CCTV pictures you often see are on programmes like Crimewatch or on posters together with the legend ‘have you seen this man?’ Which is hardly an advert for the preventative power of CCTV. I’m sure it’s a great comfort to murder and rape victims (or at least the family in the former case), knowing that at least there’s a picture of the attack so that the assailant can be caught and convicted. It seems to be a case of how you present things as to how people react. If you say ‘you are under constant surveillance,’ people react badly, yet if you simply put up a vaguely reassuring but fundamentally misleading notice and say ‘for your safety and security, CCTV cameras are in operation at all times,’ no one pays the blindest attention.

And as if all this weren’t enough, the government wants to increase the amount of information it holds on people. The government’s proposed ID card and database would require everyone to have their DNA, and possibly fingerprints and retinal scans, held on a computer system under a number linked to the card. And we’d have to pay for the privilege. This card could then become necessary if one wants to access things such as the NHS. Now, apart from resenting this because my DNA is my DNA, the fact is that the idea of the government holding such data is incredibly worrying. Leaving aside the government’s woeful record in the area of computer systems (see the NHS’s new computer system for an example of what I’m talking about) I have a fundamental objection to the government assuming the right to hold whatever information it likes on its citizens. The most fundamental right a citizen has is the right to privacy of and power over their own lives, and when the one is limited, so is the other. We should all be free to live our lives as we wish to (subject, of course, to respecting the rights of others) and the opportunity to do this is curtailed every time the government imposes another condition merely on existing. I should be able to be me without having to have a card issued by a government and an entry in a poorly-designed database telling me so, and the information that other people need about me is far less than they can, at the moment, obtain, even without the ID database.

The government has, for a long time, been made up of people with ideas far above their station. Democracy means, or supposedly means, that those elected are the servants of those who have elected them, and should be dedicated to working in their interest rather than using the opportunity to wield power to collect all kinds of information they have no business collecting about individual citizens and then allowing it to be accessed by a myriad of local councils, quangos, government ministries, and assorted other (un-)interested parties. And the first duty of MPs, the very first, is to ensure that their constituents continue to be able to live their lives unmolested by overbearing information-collectors, paternalist technocratic bureaucrats, and anyone else with an unhealthy, voyeuristic interest in collecting and holding as much information about the private lives of other people as possible. Yet the people who are supposedly protecting us have gone over to the other side, and are actually doing to reverse of what their job should be. In a democracy, the people should have their privacy guaranteed, and the government be submitted to public scrutiny; yet in practice the reverse happens.

For a long time, governments have used a variety of tools to manipulate their public image and to prevent embarrassing things from becoming public. On one side of the coin, we have what has become known as spin. The art practised by the likes of Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, by which the government makes public carefully selected nuggets of information in a carefully chosen way (witness the way in which David Kelly’s name was released for an example). And, inextricably entwined with this, we have the Official Secrets Act, which the government can use to try to prevent people from releasing things they don’t want in the public domain. Thus, the government, can release what turns out to be a pack of lies about Iraqi weapons programmes, and at the same time prosecute (albeit unsuccessfully) a civil servant who blew the whistle on bugging at the United Nations.

What we have is a very sick political system. Everyone knows intellectually that knowledge is power, but at the moment the only organised group who seem to realise the full ramifications of this are the government, and they set about collecting as much information as possible so as to exercise power over the people. Thus, we have a situation where the power, instead of residing with the citizen, as it should in a democracy, resides with the system; the government has the power, albeit somewhat tempered by the figleaf of the Freedom of Information Act, to ensure that it can severely limit the amount of information about it which becomes known to the population in whose interests it supposedly works, and at the same time it, with the collusion of Parliament, arrogates to itself sweeping powers to snoop on that same population and then, as if that weren’t bad enough, allows an incredibly wide variety of organisations to access the information.

Possibly you won’t agree with me that all of what I have described is malign, but I find it a profoundly worrying phenomenon. I am, at heart, a social libertarian, and I strongly believe that the power of government over the actions of the citizens it serves should be as limited as possible. Thus, it goes against the very core of my principles to see the government collecting reams of information on as many aspects of its citizens’ lives as possible. The government has risen far, far above its station. Instead of the servant it has become the master, and one of the major ways in which it exercises what is fast becoming proprietary control over its citizens is to hold as much information on them as possible, as though we all somehow belonged to the state as possessions.


- 5 comments by 2 or more people

  1. Hamid Sirhan

    What we have is a very sick political system. Everyone knows intellectually that knowledge is power, but at the moment the only organised group who seem to realise the full ramifications of this are the government, and they set about collecting as much information as possible so as to exercise power over the people.

    We have the right to elect parliament but (the Queen in) Parliament is sovereign. You are a subject and you have, in part, given Government the mandate to exercise its sovereignty. That mandate includes protecting the citizenry and punishing crime. Such records may very help when using statutes such as the Protection From Harassment Act to punish offenders.

    Yet a lot of the time this is simply blithely accepted because we are told that CCTV cameras help fight crime. Yet if you think about it, the CCTV pictures you often see are on programmes like Crimewatch or on posters together with the legend ‘have you seen this man?’ Which is hardly an advert for the preventative power of CCT

    They do help fight crime. In the same way that police help fight crime. You’ll find that a great deal of policework involves not catching people in the middle of committing a crime, but turning up afterwards (or finding) and arresting the criminals. CCTV does much the same. Seeing one of the cameras may deter a potential criminal, it may not. But you cannot argue with the fact that it is far easier for a judge to be able to convict someone of a criminal offence when CCTV images show them using or selling drugs, committing assault and/or battery, vandalising property etc. etc.

    I strongly believe that the power of government over the actions of the citizens it serves should be as limited as possible.

    Then you’ve got a lot more to worry about than a few (thousand) CCTV cameras in public places and the maintenance of phone records. When was the last time you elected the Queen, in all her theoretically-powerful glory?

    01 Oct 2007, 18:09

  2. Luke Parks

    We have the right to elect parliament but (the Queen in) Parliament is sovereign. You are a subject and you have, in part, given Government the mandate to exercise its sovereignty. That mandate includes protecting the citizenry and punishing crime. Such records may very help when using statutes such as the Protection From Harassment Act to punish offenders.

    I’m aware of the political system in this country; however, there are limits to how much power even a democratic sovereign government may exercise over its people. Leaving aside your point about my having given the government a mandate (which is debatable considering that I voted for a different party), the government itself has supposedly safeguarded the right to privacy through a series of Acts of Parliament including the Data Protection Act and the Human Rights Act. The problem is that it doesn’t seem to feel that it itself should be bound, even to a lesser degree, to respect the same rights. As for your point about being a subject, isn’t that incompatible with your point about Parliamentary sovereignty? I mean, no one asked me if I wanted to be a subject.

    They do help fight crime. In the same way that police help fight crime. You’ll find that a great deal of policework involves not catching people in the middle of committing a crime, but turning up afterwards (or finding) and arresting the criminals. CCTV does much the same. Seeing one of the cameras may deter a potential criminal, it may not. But you cannot argue with the fact that it is far easier for a judge to be able to convict someone of a criminal offence when CCTV images show them using or selling drugs, committing assault and/or battery, vandalising property etc. etc.

    Doesn’t the second half of what you’re saying a.) rather contradict the first half, and b.) essentially re-state the point I was making? I don’t really think that CCTV is likely to deter people who are going to commit crimes anyway. I am personally familiar with at least one case of manslaughter which was caught on CCTV and which occurred because the perpetrator was on drink and drugs; CCTV’s not going to do much to deter the majority of such crimes which occur for that reason. The idea of the deterrent value of anything (CCTV included) is predicated on the idea that people decide calmly and rationally to commit whatever crime they commit, and that given reasonable deterrence, they will make a different decision.

    Then you’ve got a lot more to worry about than a few (thousand) CCTV cameras in public places and the maintenance of phone records. When was the last time you elected the Queen, in all her theoretically-powerful glory?

    Where did I say these were the only problems we face? I note you didn’t say anything about my comments on the ID database, can I assume you agree with me? In which case what difference do you perceive in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act on the one hand and ID cards on the other? As I see it they are all part and parcel of the same trend. Anyway, as for your point about there being other things to worry about, there are, but just because this issue isn’t sexy it shouldn’t be forgotten. And just because I haven’t risked prosecution for Felony Treason to say that I think the monarchy should be abolished doesn’t mean I don’t think it.

    01 Oct 2007, 21:28

  3. Hamid Sirhan

    however, there are limits to how much power even a democratic sovereign government may exercise over its people.

    Mmmmmm not necessarily the case in this country.

    Leaving aside your point about my having given the government a mandate (which is debatable considering that I voted for a different party)

    Social Contract ftw.

    he government itself has supposedly safeguarded the right to privacy through a series of Acts of Parliament including the Data Protection Act and the Human Rights Act. The problem is that it doesn’t seem to feel that it itself should be bound, even to a lesser degree, to respect the same rights.

    It would be nice if the Government did, but it doesn’t have to. New statutes are not (necessarily – I don’t want to go into the HRA 1998 or EC legislation just yet) bound by previous statutes.

    As for your point about being a subject, isn’t that incompatible with your point about Parliamentary sovereignty? I mean, no one asked me if I wanted to be a subject.

    It doesn’t matter if you wanted to be a subject or not. That’s what you are. I dislike the entire idea of monarchy, but welcome to the system. As with Parl. sovereignty, this is contingent on it being The Queen in Parliament and therefore no, it is not incompatible. If you own a home (ie fee simple) you hold it from the Crown. It greatly annoys me even on a theoretical level.

    Doesn’t the second half of what you’re saying a.) rather contradict the first half

    I’m not sure I see the contradiction.

    I don’t really think that CCTV is likely to deter people who are going to commit crimes anyway. I am personally familiar with at least one case of manslaughter which was caught on CCTV and which occurred because the perpetrator was on drink and drugs; CCTV’s not going to do much to deter the majority of such crimes which occur for that reason.

    03 Oct 2007, 11:22

  4. Hamid Sirhan

    Damned word limits:

    I don’t really think that CCTV is likely to deter people who are going to commit crimes anyway. I am personally familiar with at least one case of manslaughter which was caught on CCTV and which occurred because the perpetrator was on drink and drugs; CCTV’s not going to do much to deter the majority of such crimes which occur for that reason.

    I haven’t said that it will always deter people. I believe it may because I know, for example, that were I to shoplift I would probably not shoplift in a store where CCTV cameras were in operation or where the outside was completely covered. However, you’re right in a way: much serious crime occurs without premeditation or rational thought process. The importance of CCTV in this regard is that it actually proves that the person committed the crime. It would be difficult to say “I was with my mate bob watching the rugby” when your face is caught on camera. Therefore it helps fight crime in the sense that it really is useful in punishing criminals. It is also effective in enforcing the “minor” regulations that everyone ignores such as the laws on speeding, on dangerous driving etc.

    I note you didn’t say anything about my comments on the ID database can I assume you agree with me? In which case what difference do you perceive in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act on the one hand and ID cards on the other?

    I agree with you about the database. The difference lies in that are you suspected of a crime (I do not like the widespread access when it comes to the phone records) you may have your DNA forcefully obtained and I do not see why it should be any different when it comes to phone records. I actually believe that it can be important in fighting terrorism and crime in general. I would be greatly in favour of reducing the scope of it, but I can see why it is there. If they were, for example, to start keeping records of all calls, that would be well in breach of privacy rules. But as it stands, my credit records and the like are up for grabs if I’m suspected of a crime. Are call logs so different?

    Anyway, as for your point about there being other things to worry about, there are, but just because this issue isn’t sexy it shouldn’t be forgotten

    Good point and stupid fallacy on my part.

    And just because I haven’t risked prosecution for Felony Treason to say that I think the monarchy should be abolished doesn’t mean I don’t think it.

    I wholeheartedly agree.

    03 Oct 2007, 11:23

  5. Luke Parks

    Mmmmmm not necessarily the case in this country.

    Yes and no. In theory Parliament can legislate anything it likes; however, in practice it is restricted by a number of factors:

    1. It is bound, for fear of international sanction, to abide by international agreements it has entered into such as various UN conventions, the European Convention on Human Rights, etc.
    2. Theoretically the Sovereign is still bound by the provisions of Magna Carta and could possibly even legitimately refuse Royal Assent to a Bill which violated the provisions of the Magna Carta which are still in force.
    3. Unless Parliament decided to repeal them, laws such as the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus Act, and the Human Rights Act in practice act as limiting factors on the government’s ability to legislate just as it likes.
    4. The government is also stymied by the fact that should it do anything too grossly unpopular, they must submit themselves for re-election (unless they do away with that as well), in which case they are likely to be punished by the electorate.

    Social Contract ftw.

    The concept has flaws.

    It would be nice if the Government did, but it doesn’t have to. New statutes are not (necessarily – I don’t want to go into the HRA 1998 or EC legislation just yet) bound by previous statutes.

    If old statues aren’t repealed, they can come into conflict with new ones.

    It doesn’t matter if you wanted to be a subject or not. That’s what you are. I dislike the entire idea of monarchy, but welcome to the system. As with Parl. sovereignty, this is contingent on it being The Queen in Parliament and therefore no, it is not incompatible. If you own a home (ie fee simple) you hold it from the Crown. It greatly annoys me even on a theoretical level.

    Just because that’s the current system doesn’t mean I should be compelled to accept it and not try to change it. In practical terms, politicians try not to treat us as subjects because, apart from anything else, it plays badly with the electorate.

    Therefore it helps fight crime in the sense that it really is useful in punishing criminals.

    That’s not really fighting crime though is it? ‘Fighting crime’ as far as I’m concerned, should be proactive process aimed at prevention, not simply some gadget put in place to make conviction easier.

    It is also effective in enforcing the “minor” regulations that everyone ignores such as the laws on speeding, on dangerous driving etc.

    This is slightly different in my view because a.) speed cameras only go off when people are actually speeding, and b.) they are useful in changing people’s driving habits which are probably easier to moderate than other modes of behaviour.

    But as it stands, my credit records and the like are up for grabs if I’m suspected of a crime. Are call logs so different?

    You’ve partly there reinforced a point I made in my entry about it being easier to keep rights than to regain them when lost, and you’re right in one sense, credit records are also pretty intrusive. However, as I said earlier, credit records are something which already happens, whereas ‘phone logs are something which does not yet happen, and are therefore easier to fight against.

    03 Oct 2007, 13:03


Add a comment

Name
Email
Anti-Spam Question
My t-shirt is red. What colour is my t-shirt?
Anti-Spam Answer
Comment


Your IP address will be recorded. -

You can not use HTML, but you can use our special markup -

Trackbacks

October 2007

Mo Tu We Th Fr Sa Su
Sep |  Today  | Nov
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
8 9 10 11 12 13 14
15 16 17 18 19 20 21
22 23 24 25 26 27 28
29 30 31            

NO2ID

NO2ID - Stop ID cards and the database state

Indymedia Go to 'UK Indymedia Features'

BBC News Go to 'BBC News - Home'

Guardian Unlimited Go to 'Latest news, sport and comment from the Guardian | The Guardian'

BBC Sport Go to 'BBC Sport - Sport'

Blog archive

Loading…

Most recent comments

  • why does fair trade taste worse than normal coffe? why does fair trade choclate taste boring and nas… by thebe on this entry
  • As a coffee roaster, I am unable to sell fairtrade coffee as there is no quality component. Specialt… by Dean Chalk on this entry
  • The real issue not one of bad politics but indifference from the public which does not directly and … by Majhoul Fulano on this entry
  • He may not have been immortal but his Guardian obituary was written by George Melly so he outlived h… by Holly Cruise on this entry
  • He was a true renaissance man. by Sue on this entry
Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike 2.5 License<-- Luke's blog2006The carefully-crafted rants of someone with far, far too much time on his hands.Luke ParksLuke Parks -->
Not signed in
Sign in

Powered by BlogBuilder
© MMXIV