Libertarian rhetoric often invokes civil liberties as the sine qua non of civilised society, but does sound and fury about scrapping ID cards and databases merely create obstacles to a potential goldseam of progressive government?
In the outline of the Lib-Con (or, if you prefer, Con-Dem) agreement released today, for example, is a sketch of a magnificent-sounding “Great Repeal Bill” on civil liberties. It promises to draw back New Labour’s horrid “illiberal hand of the state, creeping further into our lives” (the words of Cameron in a letter to voters), in the following way:
The scrapping of the ID card scheme, the National Identity register, the next generation of biometric passports and the Contact Point Database… Further regulation of CCTV… [and] a new mechanism to prevent the proliferation of unnecessary new criminal offences. (From the parties’ written agreement)
They have ample justification for their misgivings about technology: CCTV has become increasingly intelligent, to the point that it can “distinguish between different types of movement, and identify those defined as unusual—like depositing an object which remains unmoved for a given period, or movements such as frequent bathroom visits on an aeroplane.” Philip Hunter describes such systems in the latest issue of Prospect and warns of the dangers of wrongful suspicion.
But it goes without saying that the snoopers need not always be malignant. Tim Kelsey has made a convincing argument in favour of databases like Contact Point, which he sees as a way of driving down costs and increasing efficiency at the same time—two things the government has a strong interest in : “Ultimately, we should be aiming to link as much local public service data as possible,” writes Kelsey: “crime, education, benefits, health and so on, to identify those who need help. If the health service operated as effectively as the direct marketing sector, it might well survive for another half-century on the resources that it has.”
Tim Berners-Lee, too, father of the world wide web, said in Prospect‘s article on opening up Whitehall’s data that “web science has a lot of excitement about how humanity, connected by technology, should evolve”.
The serious and justifiable qualms about liberties will affect the speed at which the good guys, like Berners-Lee, can effect their changes—let’s hope they don’t result in us…