personal data is not state property

A wide-ranging speech by Henry Porter exhorts us to be alert and informed about the looming database state:

We used to think of this country as having innate respect for freedom and privacy, as though it was somehow part of the British DNA, an immutable geographic feature of these islands – like the Pennine Range.

But today instead of being an example to the world we are fast becoming the test bed for a new, technologically driven authoritarian state – what one website calls the first fascist democracy.

They may be going a little far but you see the point – democracy does not presuppose liberty.

Not sure if that last sentence should say ‘entails’, but you get the point. He discusses the proposed creation of a database to record all emails and phonecalls made by UK residents (which we on this blog, loyal readers, have already agreed is outrageous), the ongoing use of automatic number-plate recognition devices to track vehicle movements on motorways and in town centres, the need to inform the authorities of your credit card details, contact number, and travel plans when leaving the country, the proposed law to record the names of everyone who stays in hotels, the ubiquity of CCTV cameras, the National Identity Register, the world’s largest DNA database, and a small selection of instances of terror legislation being abused to allow people to be spied on by the police and/or their local councils.

“We the British have let this happen without debate, without marches, without protest, without – it seems – the slightest qualm or anxiety.

Where is the biting satire?

Where is the outrage of the intelligentsia?

Where is the media?

This lack of protest, this meekness of spirit in Britain worries and angers me in equal measure. But you know what makes me even angrier- it is the profoundly pessimistic view of this country that these laws and decrees embody. Labour’s cynicism and negativity about our country is the most contemptible part of its administration, and I am afraid that we have all to some degree bought this account of ourselves – that we are not fit to run our own lives without being watched, monitored, chivvied and punished every second of the day.

But this society is still greater than anything Labour’s imagination is capable of conceiving.

So let the struggle begin here.

That means making this issue a part of your everyday life. Talk about it with your friends. Use the media, get in touch with your MP – especially if you live in Labour and Tory constituencies and, yes, start protesting. We need to get on the streets and challenge every part of this programme to make us slaves of the database.”

On that note, although it’s not national government that’s involved, you may be interested to know of a consultation being held by the Scottish Government for how local councils should deal with the use of biometric technology in schools. This would include fingerprint or palm recognition systems so that pupils wouldn’t have to worry about forgetting to bring their card to the school library to get books out, or to facilitate cashless school meal systems. Should you feel that the benefits of such schemes are outweighed by other concerns, such as perhaps privacy, the consultation is open until 4th December. (Thanks to Peter for pointing this one out.)

12 thoughts on “personal data is not state property

  1. Just followed the link to the dramatically titled Some interesting video clips, including this one that somebody filmed of themselves being grilled by two counter-terrorism policemen in a ‘random stop and search’ in Waterloo station. Turns out you’re not allowed to refuse, otherwise you’ll be arrested. The police don’t always show their ID when requested. They look for people carrying large sums of money, as that can apparently be used for terrorist purposes. And other fun facts.


  2. Hi Cath I looked at a bit of the video (my internet is not great) and am not very sure why the cameraman is making such a big fuss about it, loads of people get stopped all the time.

    I’m not doing a very good job at keeping up with the latest new bits of legislation that are coming through from the awful people at Parliament. However I’m fairly sure that the police have had stop and search powers for quite a long time now, at least since 1984 anyway.

    I thought that the policeman spent a good while explaining why he was being stopped and under what powers the search was being conducted, he also showed him his ID which he didn’t have to do because he was obviously in uniform at the time.

    I didn’t see the end of the clip, but I imagine the clip ended with the cameraman being searched and being not happy about it.

    If people are not happy with their dealings with the police, I think the best way to deal with the situation is to be very polite, making sure you know the collar number and description / distinguishing features of the officer(s) dealing with you, noting the where and when of it all, and what happened.

    That way it helps if you find you need to dispute things in a legal fashion.

    But there is no point disputing with the police ‘on the ground’ about things (unless you know that they’re in the wrong) it just doesn’t work, you have to do afterwards.


  3. Read Orwell and then protest, then :)

    To jbell – it’s not necessarily a good thing if lots of people get searched all the time. I’ve a feeling 1984 was actually when the ‘sus laws’ got withdrawn, although i’m a bit hazy about the details – it was a provision which was counterproductive, open to abuse, and greatly resented. I think i too would be a bit miffed if i was pulled over for a random stop/search, when i was doing nothing wrong, and had no option but to comply. There seems to be some confusion about the law here too – the policeman in the video tells the guy it’s completely random and he doesn’t even need to be acting suspiciously, but the legislation itself seems to imply that there does need to be something suspicious to motivate the search.

    Even though this single incident on its own might not amount to much, it’s very much part of a climate where the balance seems to be shifting from people being free to go about their daily lives without state/police interference, towards a situation where everyone is assumed to be a potential criminal (or terrorist) and you need to be continually prepared to justify your actions to suspicious officials. That’s the wrong way round: the government, and the police, are there to serve the people. And be accountable to the people, rather than the other way round. That is what you expect in a free society.

    But your advice in your last 3 paras is extremely sensible and has a certain ring of authority about it :)


  4. “the need to inform the authorities of your credit card details, contact number, and travel plans when leaving the country”

    Really? That is outrageous (though not more outrageous than much of the rest). I was always happy when I left Germany for being “off the radar” – as it has been obligatory for quite some time already to fill in forms with your name and address in hotels in Germany, and you have to register at every place where you have a flat within two weeks (even if it is not your main place of living).


  5. What fuss? The state knowing all kind of things about me it has absolutely no business to know? (Even if it does not use it for evil purposes. And is any of the states we are living in pervaded by such a saintly spirit that it is inconceivable that it might pursue someone innocent for some reason or other using this information?)
    I was born in the former GDR – do you have any idea about the public outcry and enragement when the extent of the espionage network of the STASI came out – even though most of the information was put to no use, as there was simply too much to use it efficiently?


  6. That Scottish Parliament link looks interesting. I do wonder whether it’s possible to block or deflate the plans a bit by using local powers to reject ID cards. It makes me so angry that the british government seems determined to push ahead regardless of the huge rejection and criticism coming from all corners. I’ll happily come and protest!


  7. Well, the Scottish Parliament voted resoundingly in favour of a motion that referenced “the the threat to civil liberties from the UK Government’s expensive and unworkable proposal to introduce compulsory ID cards”, which i mentioned at the time with further links

    But the suspicion at the moment is that the groups who are being picked on as the first to be forced to carry ID cards (foreign nationals, airport workers), are those under Westminster’s jurisdiction – in preference to groups such as teachers and NHS staff, who were also mooted as possible victims earlier, but who apparently fall under Holyrood’s powers – meaning that the Scottish Parliament has less of a say. (Although, as ever, I’m none too clear about exactly what powers are reserved to Westminster vs devolved, so anyone who knows any better is welcome to chip in!)

    The Scottish branches of NO2ID are very active and successful tho – in Glasgow and Edinburgh. They’ve organised protests which have gained quite a bit of media coverage.
    (Eg a video here
    and discussion here


  8. Buuuut, vitally important to add – in Scotland we’re also having to deal with the “National Entitlement Card” being rolled out. Disguised as a free bus pass for OAPs, but with the sinister overtones of a unique national identity number linked to a central database of personal information.

    Discussed here (and elsewhere but this is easiest to link to!):


  9. I have found out that the police in England and Wales have had stop and search powers since the introduction of the Poaching Act of 1862.

    So it may not be illegal weapons that the police are looking for. It could just be for illegal salmon!


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