The Need to Know

Two key assumptions have dominated recent government security policy in the US and UK. The first is that the threat of terror and international crime means that the government's right to know everything about us must outweigh our individual right to privacy. The second is that the rights of the government and major corporations to secrecy must outweigh our right to know about their activities.

Whilst our own rights to privacy dwindle, corporate rights to commercial confidentiality and intellectual property skyrocket. Whilst we no longer know about many of the activities of our governments, our governments have the means to accumulate unprecedentedly vast banks of data about us. They can access the minute by minute geographical position of our mobile phones, whether switched on or off, on any day and time of their choice.

The UK has more video surveillance than any other nation. In the UK, it is possible to piece together from archives almost continual video footage from an incredible four million CCTV cameras of any shopping trip by any individual to almost any city centre. You can be tracked by computers using facial recognition technology and these computers can analyse your behaviour, read your numberplates and follow your car. Radio Frequency ID tags can broadcast the movement of selected products bought in supermarkets and a computer can link this to photographs taken of you as you picked the item off the shelf.

Most telephone calls to large companies are recorded 'for training and security', but you have no right to record the same call. The UK government has DNA samples from almost three million UK citizens, including newborn children, anyone who has been arrested (whether or not prosecuted) and many public sector employees - and can analyze these to assess your propensity to particular hereditary illnesses, personality traits or behavioural patterns. They can identify every book you have ever ordered online and every credit card purchase you have ever made. The list is endless. None of the police states of Eastern Europe ever had surveillance powers on this scale.

On the other hand we are not entitled to know the gene sequence of genetically modified ingredients that may be in our food, nor may we see the corporate safety data that has convinced our governments that these ingredients are safe. We have no right to see the source code of Outlook Express, the software on which over half the world's online population relies for daily communication, or to know whether it contains a 'back door' to enable government snooping. We have no right to know the molecular structure of pharmaceuticals on which our health may depend. Governments and major corporations have converged to create a secret society in our midst.

The imbalance between our accountability to the government and big business and their accountability to us is growing. Proposed UK legislation includes:

Compulsory ID cards backed by a nationwide database linking together all the separate facts and files about individuals and making these available to any government official or any private agency delegated tasks by government departments

Creation of a national DNA database containing DNA samples from every UK citizen and visitor to the country

The replacement of fuel tax proposals with a "pay-as-you-go" proposal to tag every vehicle so that their exact position can at every moment be logged by satellites, enabling a tax to be charged for every mile travelled.

Raps and taps

Similarly illiberal laws have been passed across the water, in the form of the Patriot Act, which attack the fundamental liberties enshrined in the US constitution. The act was brought in so swiftly Congressmen were apparently not even able to read the act before it was passed - a month after the attack on the Twin Towers. Now your government can tap your phone and email to protect you from terrorism. The government can also imprison you without trial and ignore the terms of the Geneva convention - all in the defence of liberty. A second Patriot Act now promises to be even more extreme in its infringements than the first. We may hypothesise that one day soon every child will have an RFID tag, bar code, webcam and microphone installed at birth in the name of patriotism and freedom...

The arguments to justify our governments' rights to total knowledge are all too familiar. Any fact, however obscure, could turn out to help solve a crime. Law abiding citizens should have nothing to fear from this knowledge. The government should have a right to all information because it is their job to act in the public interest.

In the atmosphere of media-generated hysteria following the 9/11 attacks it was possible to sell this argument and to denounce anyone who questioned it as an enemy of freedom. However, it is difficult to imagine that the public would accept its logical conclusion. Over 50 per cent of all crime is committed within the home, so surely we should have CCTV cameras installed in every living room and bedroom, on the assumption that law-abiding citizens would have nothing to fear. This would be unacceptable, of course, yet we allow the same arguments to be used to impinge on our daily freedoms.

The argument for unlimited government knowledge about us also assumes that this information will only be used in the public interest. However we know that almost every government agency or representative faces conflicts of interest. For instance, the majority of UK and UK politicians are directors, consultants or major investors in private corporations. Since the eighties, top UK businesses have been actively encouraged to 'lend' directors to the UK civil service, where they help draft the laws regulating their own companies. Much of the work of government departments, including data handling and security matters, is now passed out to private consultancies.

Governments attract multinational businesses to invest in their nations by offering more attractive terms than other nations. In such a climate it seems inevitable that Governments will offer these businesses almost total secrecy whilst giving them unrestricted access to all the data they have collected about their own citizens.

A new agenda

What is wrong with starting instead with these principles?

That all information about individual citizens should be their own private property; whereas all information about governments and corporations should be public property

That we should not be required to disclose information about ourselves unless there is prior public consent that the public interest in disclosing this specific information outweighs our right to privacy; but that governments and corporations should be required to disclose all information about themselves unless there is public agreement that the public interest in withholding this specific information outweighs our right to see it

That each fact we are required to reveal about ourselves should only be provided to the specific public body that requires this information; whereas each fact that governments and corporations are required to reveal should be made available to all

That no public body should pass information about anyone to any other public body without our prior informed consent; but that no authorization is required to exchange information about governments and corporations

That all information about individual citizens should be destroyed when it is no longer required; but that all information about governments and corporations should be retained indefinitely in public records.

Open source government

Why should we not turn the logic of our governments' argument on its head? Most corporate money laundering and financial crime does not involve deals with private individuals, it involves deals with politicians, civil servants and government agencies. Why should we not, using the logic our leaders have used, be entitled to total knowledge about every politician and government agency? Why should we not tag all politicians and track them by satellite to ensure that they do not visit dubious foreign nations or the offices of suspect companies? Why should their bank statements not be posted on the internet so that we can all be reassured that they are not being bribed? Why should there not be webcams in every civil service office so that we can all see what they are up to? It would be possible were it not for the fact that laws are created by governments for their benefit rather than by the public for our benefit...

Robert Vint


American Civil Liberties Union


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