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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.

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