Some years ago I wandered the streets of Oval and Vauxhall, with a friend, in the supposed footsteps of William Blake. He had greatly enjoyed the area according to my friend. Back then it was all fields and country lanes. Since then it has been developed into something appalling. After a few hours of struggling with the juxtaposition between our ugly surroundings and the beautiful words in the edition of Blake we carried with us to read along the way, my friend admitted that there were prettier parts nearby. Soon we were standing in a delightful square with only one entrance, a mound of well cultivated lawn and a beautiful old tree. With no through traffic it was delightfully quiet. A single police officer stood on the other side, idling. It was an excellent spot to skive off in. My friend and I dipped back into our book and took turns to read aloud again. On reflection, perhaps that did look rather suspicious, especially as our attention was rather obviously drawn repeatedly to the police officer. He carried a gun. After a while, he walked towards us and politely enquired what we were doing. I read him some poetry. My friend politely enquired as to what the police officer was doing. He proudly reported that he was guarding someone under the Internationally Protected Persons Act 1978 but refused to say who. We teased him a bit about his gun but he stayed calm. Definitely he wasn’t getting it out for us. After a while we left, feeling a bit guilty that we’d given the lonely copper such a hard time. A few days later the flat in the legendary large scale squat Bonnington Square which my friend was looking after was burgled. He called the police. Whilst they were taking finger prints, he chatted amiably with them. “I was talking to one of your colleagues the other day”, said my friend, “and was surprised that he carried a gun. Just around the corner in…”. “Oh yeah, he’s guarding Jack Straw!”
That sums up the problem with the state holding information. It is utterly impossible to prevent its servants from sharing it whenever they like. People talk to one another, freely. Data cannot be locked down. The best hope is that an audit trail will exist to track down where a leak occurred. The same principle applies to the private sector too, of course. The difference seems to be that people working in the public sector feel less loyalty to our government than private sector employees do to their companies. To the intensely patriotic this situation must appear baffling. Some may regard it as a consequence of the contempt our elected politicians treat us with. After all, we are their paymasters. Whatever the reason, it is obviously true.
The recent political argument about how much data the state may collect about us largely overlooked this problem. The civil liberty crowd cried foul at the prospect of the state knowing too much but ignored the secondary and potentially far more serious problem of the state being a coarse grade sieve. At least the state is accountable, sort of. Much of the pub talk on the issue assumed that the security agencies collect this sort of information anyway without permission. That is the level of distrust of government. Perhaps such open distrust is a symptom of a healthy democracy. Assuming, for a moment, that the spooks do behave in this underhand manner, the problem is that they can’t admit to it in court.
The private sector already holds this data. It has to. Otherwise it couldn’t operate its business. Furthermore, it buys and sells data about who we communicate with, what we look at online, for how long etc., Companies gather this data in a variety of ways. Data mining is a large industry. You might innocently believe giving your phone number to one company but not your address is a clever tactic but there’s a good chance that later on an algorithm will connect the two together. The company selling data has nothing to lose. The lone employee has everything to gain. Whether it is illegal for the state to buy openly traded data must be a matter of debate. Certainly it could provide useful leads in the fight against tax evasion, although it would probably not be admissible in court. It would be analogous to the police paying an informer for his trouble and then investigating independently. The modern proverb, “If you’re not paying for something, you are the product”, neatly sums up how social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Google+ make money from their ostensibly free services. I’d go further: “if you’re not selling your data, someone else will sell it for you”.
This morning the UK government is talking about restricting the Freedom of Information Act. Unsurprisingly, ministers wish to have parts of their public work protected from the public. They want their privacy back. The unsung issue is about how to extend the Freedom of Information Act so that we can discover what the state knows about us. If the state’s data mining operation allowed individuals to discover what information was held about themselves, would that not cure many of the concerns? Of course, the spooks could apply for court orders to restrict some data being released for certain individuals. The principle being that if others are allowed to track us, we should be allowed to track ourselves. It’s too difficult to remember everything. That’s what spreadsheets and databases are for. Lots of civil litigation would be resolved more fairly because we’d be able to obtain our own records. Countless court cases turn on whether a certain telephone call was made, to give just one example. Granting us each access to the data we’d be paying for the collection of, would save lots of money, time and effort. If private companies, many of whom have more wealth than some nations, are allowed to retain this data for their private advantage, why shouldn’t we also be able to access it on our own account? It is our data.
Whether these measures will combat serious, organised, crime must be severely doubted. Circumventing data tracking is relatively easy. Professionals will stay a couple of steps ahead of the authorities. Only amateur criminals will be caught by these extra intelligence gathering powers. People like Jack Straw, the UK’s Foreign Secretary who blatantly supported an illegal war in defiance of his own legal advice. We know what he did, we know where to find him and one of these days we’ll see him in court.