I’ve become increasingly – many would say boringly – obsessed with the growth of the surveillance state: CCTV cameras, ID cards, national databases and the like. I still think these things are in many ways a very bad thing. But I wonder if there isn’t another perspective. Could it be argued that these are just symptoms of a more general cultural move towards a different attitude towards freedom, rights and openness.
There’s a number of items for discussion. The most recent is a story in the FT this morning about the OECD and UK government putting pressure on Liechtenstein to open up their bank vaults and force customers to voluntarily disclose information for tax purposes. One of the catalysts for this change was this:
The proposed purge of undeclared bank accounts by one of the worldâ€™s hitherto most secretive tax havens reflects pressure on Liechtenstein. Germany succeeded last year in uncovering tax evaders after buying stolen customer data from a former Liechtenstein bank employee.
In other words, the move from paper to digitised data has exposed Liechtenstein to the same dangers as we suffer as individuals: the larcenous acquisition of our data. But in this case the social outcome was positive (unless you’re a Liechtenstein banker, of course).
More generally, there’s a wider move to making data available: recent examples include the Guardian’s Data Store, and a new API for US economic data from the Federal Bank of St Louis. In both cases, what’s striking is how an individual entity can make data available which other data stakeholders might wish wasn’t opened out. For instance, a state federal bank can release economic data for the whole of the U.S. And once that data’s out, all the stakeholders in that data have their room for manoeuvre restricted, at least when it comes to restricting use. In the information power equation, the data stakeholders lose some power, and we gain some.
It’s important to note that the collapse in individual privacy, and the explosion in access to previously withheld data, are two sides of the same technological coin. Both stem from the ability to digitise data and then make it available on a network. CCTV and ID cards would make even less sense in an analogue world, while the Guardian’s Data Store would be frankly impossible.
So, there is a trade-off. Is the benefit we receive from a new cultural attitude to previously “secret” stuff greater than the potential injury to our individual liberty? For me, the jury is still out (I know, because I saw them leaving the building on CCTV). But as a last note, I’d refer people to what will now be known as the Alastair Campbell Edition of the New Statesman. There’s a thought-provoking piece in there by Conor Gearty, professor of law at the LSE. His thesis is that those complaining of civil liberties being “squeezed” are making several mistakes, including:
- Assuming a “golden age” of individual liberty which doesn’t exist
- Ignoring that laws are at least as much about quantifying what the State can do (instead of leaving it vague) as they are about extending its powers; and this is preferable to leaving the extent of the State’s powers to common law (which is that the “England’s golden Constitution” blowhards would prefer).
- Ignoring the significant legal constructs for guaranteeing freedoms, including devolution, the Freedom of Information Act, the Data Protection Act and the Human Rights Act
- Focussing on the downside of state interventions and not the upside: CCTV does prevent crime, DNA does solve it, for instance
I certainly don’t agree with everything that Gearty says, but I think it’s something worth saying. In our newly open, networked and interconnected world, we do need our rights codified. An ancient constitution and set of precedents will no longer cut it (ask anyone who’s had to deal with online libel issues). Everything is changing as a result of technology. And as such the end of our privacy is a symptom of cultural change stemming from technological development, and that change has massively positive elements as well as worryingly negative ones.