Liberal over-reaction makes it harder to have a rational debate about the database stateby David Goodhart / April 26, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
We are not living in a police state. Not even a remotely authoritarian one. In fact we, all of us, have never enjoyed so much liberty—personal, political and legal. Yet to assert this view sets one at odds with a large part of liberal opinion in Britain.
In the run up to February’s Convention on Modern Liberty, the liberal press was filled with cries of anguish from leading writers and intellectuals—Philip Pullman evoked “sleeping Albion” as new laws sup-posedly strangled old freedoms, Anthony Barnett talked about a “system crisis,” Henry Porter claimed we had only “two years” before it is too late.
When I read the actual litany of complaint against the government, I felt unmoved. Forty-two days detention without charge and control orders (which apply to just 17 people)? True, 42 days (which was rejected by parliament) is a long time but suspects are under constant judicial review—and both measures were a response to a real threat, something that never seems to feature in the liberty lobby discourse. Then there is the surveillance state—CCTV cameras and DNA databases. Nowhere have I heard of innocent people suffering injustice as a result of either technology and, as the father of four children who often travel on their own around central London, I find the cameras reassuring (on some estimates half of all British transport police convictions are won thanks to CCTV evidence).
What is going on here? Of course there are some serious issues concerning the database state. But why do so many intelligent people appear to hold such disproportionate views about this subject?
Part of the answer is simple enough: the left (and right) needs a club to beat a government with, especially a betraying Labour government. Now that Iraq is fading from view, or even coming good, a new club is required. Another reason was
pinpointed by Rafael Behr in the Observer on 15th March: “Why are we liberals so pessimistic about liberty? It’s as if we secretly crave repression to give us a sense of political purpose.” As he points out, most of the organisers of the Liberty Convention are members of the establishment. For the privileged and influential, freedom is banal. So these liberal babyboomers with a romantic view of political struggle are tempted to invent a repressive state that gives their activism a more heroic purpose.
These rebels without a cause might, in normal times, be mildly risible. But these are not normal times: the combination of new technology and the ever rising expectations that the public have of state services means that we are unavoidably living in a new era of the database state, and a cool, technocratic debate is required to establish its parameters. The shrill politicisation of the liberty lobby makes this harder.
We are moving from a world of privacy by default to one in which privacy must be designed into our systems. The modern social democratic state needs lots of data about us in order to fulfil the demands we make on it; not just trivial things like our bank account details to pay in pensions or tax credits but much more personal things like health records—to make sure we get the right treatment at the right time.
If there is too much suspicion of the state, and too many data protection rules, the state cannot give us what we want. Equally, if there are no rules or inadequate rules to protect the more sensitive information about citizens then there is the potential for abuse, either accidentally or intentionally. At present we risk getting the worst of both worlds.
There are countless examples of good public service ideas that are falling foul of unnecessary restrictions. In Southwark, for example, there has been a successful experiment with a “one-stop shop” bereavement service that helps (often old) people deal with all the bureaucratic complications when a close relative dies. It was hoped that this would be extended to the whole country, but as different rules govern various national databases, they cannot share information with one another. Jack Straw has tried to change this, but in March he had to scrap the idea after coming under pressure from civil liberties groups. Similarly a plan to replace the current humiliation and delay of applying for free school meals with a single, national website (able to share data across relevant departments) has been held up.
There are big challenges ahead—such as who should be on the DNA database, and how the new database to monitor web use should be overseen—and the government has not set out clear and principled positions on these or many other aspects of the database state. It is also true that parts of the state, in particular the police and local authorities, sometimes take a cavalier attitude to the existing protections.
Nonetheless, the liberty lobby is unimaginatively one-sided. People want privacy where it matters, but they are also prepared to trade it off for other things—like safety from terrorism, or to stop tragedies like Baby P. In fact, people happily give up their privacy every day to private or public bodies in return for the smallest convenience. Take Google’s new “latitude” website. It allows you to register your mobile phone. If you do this, and your friends do too, you can see where everyone is on a map, located by the chip in their phone. On a night out in central London, or in downtown New York, this could be very useful: has everyone got to the party or are they already moving on? Latitude has caused a minor storm among the privacy lobby—but you can be sure it will be popular.
It might be useful if we started to see our data as similar to tax, something we willingly surrender to the authorities in return for various benefits, but over which there is also a political negotiation about how much to surrender. The liberty lobby, in this analogy, becomes the Thatcherite Taxpayers’ Alliance of the database state—wanting individuals to hoard their data and leaving the state powerless to serve citizens as it could.
Moreover, by turning these complex, technical debates into a story of noble defenders of liberty versus cynical, power-grabbing tyrants (whether politicians or officials) the liberty lobby reinforce the lazy anti-politics of the age—a sort of Ukip for the chattering classes.