If you’ve done nothing wrong…

I caught an interesting blog by Jon Baines over at Information Rights and Wrongs yesterday on data protection and the extent of the “database state”.  Jon writes that a data protection officer he knows is being pushed to “encourage greater sharing of information between their public sector organisation and other public sector bodies.”  As he goes on to point out, this push is not only coming from management, it is coming from central government.

Last month, The Guardian revealed that the government is planning to make it easier for public agencies to share information.  According to the report:

Ministers are planning a shakeup of the law on the use of confidential personal data to make it far easier for government and public-sector organisations to share confidential information supplied by the public.

Proposals to be published next month by the Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude, are expected to include fast-track procedures for ministers to license the sharing of data in areas where it is currently prohibited, subject to privacy safeguards.

Before the election, the Tories gave a clear commitment to “roll back the advance of Big Brother”.  Indeed, their manifesto stated:

The database state is a poor substitute for the human judgement essential to the delivery of public services. Worse than that, it gives people false comfort that an infallible central state is looking after their best interests. But the many scandals of lost data, leaked documents and database failures have put millions at risk. It is time for a new approach to protecting our liberty.

It is clear that they have now u-turned on this policy and are actually expanding the extent of the “database state”.  As the aforementioned Guardian article goes on to state:

Despite the coalition government’s pre-election promises to roll back the database state, the growth of internal Whitehall databases has quietly continued apace in the last two years. A newly created “drug data warehouse” has been set up containing anonymised details of more than 1 million individuals who use illicit drugs.

I find these developments deeply concerning in the current economic and political climate.  Such policies may seem harmless and benign in a stable environment, but these are not stable times.

In times of severe depression, there is always a very real risk that people will flock to extremes to seek answers.  If people do not feel that the government is on their side when they are losing their jobs or feeling the effects of the depression, they will look towards those who are on their side (or at least appear to be).  This simple principle has been demonstrated with the recent election in Greece and the rather disturbing results that emerged from a country in the grip of crisis.

Whilst all eyes were on France and the victory of Hollande, in Greece it emerged that a far-right, anti-immigration party had won a large enough percentage of the vote to gain a seat in the Greek parliament.  For 5-7% of voters, Golden Dawn appeared to be on their side.  For this section of Greek society, a far-right party did have the solutions to resolve the economic difficulties the country is experiencing.  Many Greeks felt that the government was not on their side, not listening to their concerns and subsequently they turned to extremists who (apparently) were.

We are, at present, a long way off this situation and certainly there is no immediate sense that a far-right party will gain a seat in parliament (although I often feel we are teetering on the brink).  However, whilst the implications of the economic crisis are not clear, it is difficult to maintain absolute confidence that fascist parties won’t gain a foothold.  Certainly, if people feel that the governments are not on their side through the crisis there is a danger they could be persuaded by extremist parties that are otherwise consigned to the margins.  But what is really concerning is the extent to which recent governments have put the mechanisms in place for a truly efficient fascist state.

For many years now, we have had security cameras on every street corner ostensibly to ‘protect’ us as citizens.  Indeed, there are presently around 2 million CCTV cameras on UK streets, more than any other country in Europe, despite the lack of clear evidence they have had asignificant impact on solving crime.  It is easier than ever before to monitor citizens and track their movements.  Whilst there are movements against the widespread use of CCTV, for many such technology has been broadly accepted (if not welcomed in some cases) as part of the mechanisms required to tackle crime.  The extent of public surveillance and the growth of the “database state” should concern us all in such unstable times.

Going back to the issue of data collection, Jon writes in his excellent blog post:

In a non-liberal state, however, similar information that has possibly been innocently, or naively, collated, can be misused in horrendous ways: so, in 1940s Holland, municipal registers were used by the Nazis to identify and persecute Jews, trade union membership listsused to persecute organised labour and public health and crime records used to persecute the disabled and criminals.

He concludes:

Data-sharing can have enormous and beneficial implications, but we need to exercise caution. We mustn’t amass personal data just because we can. We mustn’t use that data for purposes which were not envisaged when we gathered it. And we mustn’t retain that data just because we can’t be bothered to think what to do with it after its usefulness has passed.

Indeed, data-sharing does provide many benefits, but we must not abandon basic principles designed to protect the individual.  Furthermore, despite the fact that the above principles are enshrined in the statutory Principles in the Data Protection Act 1998 (as Jon states), this does not mean we shouldn’t have concerns about the extent of information held by the state on individuals and the extent to which the database state is expanding.  Many of the mechanisms that are currently in place would make for a highly efficient fascist state.

I have often heard those who defend CCTV and the expansion of the “database state” employ the “if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear” argument.  That’s all well and good but you are not the one that defines what is right or wrong.  They are.