Another day, another government disaster, so it seems. Everyone’s “favourite” dissembling pisswizard, Nick Clegg has come out to criticise “scaremongering” over the Coalition’s plans to introduce surveillance of email and web use. To see why it’s so insulting that it should be Clegg who has trotted out to deliver the latest defense of the indefensible, one only has to consult pages 93 and 94 of the LibDem 2010 election manifesto (remember that?), which make very interesting reading:
Liberal Democrats believe it is an individual’s right to live their lives as they see fit, without discrimination, with personal privacy, and with equal rights before the law.
Decades of Labour and Conservative rule have overthrown some of the basic principles of British justice and turned Britain into a surveillance state.
Not to mention that they wanted to:
End plans to store your email and internet records without good cause.
But it wasn’t just Clegg banging on about this. Oh no! David Cameron was concerned about it too. See this section from p79 of the Conservative 2010 manifesto?
Wherever possible, we believe that personal data should be controlled by individual citizens themselves. We will strengthen the powers of the information Commissioner to penalise any public body found guilty of mismanaging data. We will take further steps to protect people from unwarranted intrusion by the state, including:
- cutting back intrusive powers of entry into homes, which have been massively extended under Labour;
- curtailing the surveillance powers that allow some councils to use anti-terrorism laws to spy on people making trivial mistakes or minor breaches of the rules;
- requiring Privacy impact assessments of any proposal that involves data collection or sharing; and,
- ensuring proper Parliamentary scrutiny of any new powers of data-sharing.
It seems odd how two parties, so committed to the privacy of the individual and the threat of the creeping state should now, suddenly decide to completely change their tune, enter into the collusion they have and propose the shambles they have put on the table. Immediately, of course, the Home Secretary, Theresa May sang from the prepared hymn sheet, claiming rather disingenuously that it would help bring “criminal paedophiles and terrorists” to justice, utterly forgetting to mention everyone else. She also played the single most heinous card of all:
“ordinary people” would have nothing to fear from the government’s plans.
Does this sound familiar? It should. These were the exact tactics used by the previous Labour government when proposing similar measures, which both the Conservatives and Lib Dems attacked as being fundamentally undemocratic and another step towards a “Big Brother” society. The stench of the hypocrisy emanating from the government front benches is overpowering.
For your information, Mrs May, I am an “ordinary” person, with an ordinary job and an ordinary life. While I have nothing of any consequence to hide, I certainly have plenty to fear. From you and your kind. I fear that my privacy is being trampled upon, and valued little if at all. After all, it is not just the content of messages that are important: the existence and location of the message itself is valuable information to someone. I object very very much to having this information made available to the government as it sees fit, and for the security services to have access to my private communications at will. It seems to me to be nothing more than an affront to my right to privacy and a unilateral renegotiation of the relationship between me, a citizen, and the state; this right to privacy is itself enshrined in law, in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and thus in the UK Human Rights Act. It is highly questionable whether the restriction put in place would be “in accordance with law” or reasonable. At the risk of needless escalation akin to Godwin’s Law, this fairly quickly puts us into the Chinese league of intrusiveness and distrust of our own people. The great danger of this of course, is that when people feel like they are being treated like criminals, they start to act like them.
Back in the year 2000, when the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act made its iniquitous progress through Parliament, we were assured, by no less than Jack Straw (the then Home Secretary) himself, that its use would be exceptional, and unusual, and that great care would be taken not to abuse the power vested in it. What happened? Before the end of the decade it seemed that everyone and his cat could use the powers to obtain data. I have the horrible suspicion that this could be the same. We are told there will be “a debate” by Clegg. Putting aside the idea that anything Clegg says can be trusted for just a second or two, one has to wonder if this idea of “debate” is the same as that which took place about university tuition fees, or the Health and Social Care Bill.
Then of course, there are the practicalities of actually doing it. The scale of this surveillance is pretty staggering, and difficult. Not to mention very expensive. Who’s going to pay for it? Why, we are, of course. Admittedly, it will trickle down as the ISPs are forced to put expensive systems in place to monitor every minute of our online lives, and they in turn will pass this cost down to us, but we will pay for it, with higher bills and charges. It will place additional strain on networks that are still lagging behind many of our major competitors. We will be forced to pay for our own privacy to be continually and continuously violated. Never mind the content of our communications, which will be little better protected, but the connections themselves are also useful information about us. Collecting them too is a violation and the lazy, trite defence proffered by the permanently hapless Home Secretary forgets to mention that the resourceful and the malicious (who are supposedly the targets here, remember) will simply navigate around these problems, leaving the rest of us to suffer the consequences.
A cynic might argue that letting this squirrel out now means that, come the Queen’s Speech in May, this will be old news and the public won’t care that much. Setting aside the not trivial issue that no one is able to believe a single thing that comes out of the Deputy Prime Minister*‘s mouth now, the danger is that it also gives more time for a much more concerted and vociferous opposition campaign to rally, and for them to turn public opinion. And yet another PR disaster to rack up with the growing ranks already there. They do this at their peril.
*Given the amount of time Nick Clegg is spending in the Cabinet Office “shaping the running of government”, it is becoming all too easy to see Deputy Prime Minister as little more than a glorified Office Administrator. His low profile over the last week seems only to confirm that he is wheeled out to be the human shield for the policies the Lib Dems should really oppose, but now will swallow to keep their grubby hands grasping at the illusion of power, just like poor Tantalus. Principles are sold all too cheap, it seems.