By Polly Toynbee (THE GUARDIAN, 07/11/06):
The world is a dangerous place. A heating globe threatens drought, war and mass migration. Terrorists may blow up proliferating nuclear power stations. Ministers are preparing for a 1918-style flu pandemic.So on a scale of threats to Our Way of Life, where would you place CCTV and speed cameras, electronic health records, DNA storage or ID cards that carry the same information as passports? Most people are not in a delirium of alarm about the Big Brother potential of any of these. Mori finds that about 80% of people support the idea of ID cards (though only 39% think the government will introduce them smoothly, which is another matter). As for CCTV, when Mori asks local communities what would make their areas safer, street cameras always come in the top three. It’s easy to see why: people on an estate I know say CCTV helped transform the only local shopping street, which had been rife with drugs and prostitution.
Most journalists know those green-ink letters from psychotics begging you to investigate dark forces who have inserted a chip into their skulls as they slept or put microphones in their walls. It is no use urging them to listen to their psychiatrists, or telling them this is a common delusion with a medical cause and sometimes a cure: they just accuse you of joining the great conspiracy. It takes a delusion of some grandeur to imagine that an all-seeing eye really cares what you are up to every minute of the day. But it’s one that seems to be shared by the vociferous campaigners against “the surveillance society”.
ID cards is the issue these fears coalesce around. Tony Blair made a robust defence of them yesterday at his monthly press conference, claiming they would curb illegal immigration, crime, terrorism, identity fraud and NHS tourism. Biometrics has to be introduced for passports anyway and the additional cost of ID cards carrying the same information is, he claims, small. Now all of that may be doubtful – when the cards are ready Blair will be long gone but criminals, terrorists and traffickers may be well ahead of the technology. The money might be better spent in myriad other ways, but the threat to fundamental civil liberties somehow eludes me.
It is the job of the information commissioner to make his presence known from time to time, so last week he called for a public debate. We are waking up to the surveillance state, he said. Projecting forwards to 2016, he launched a report from the Surveillance Studies Network suggesting shoppers will be scanned, their clothes recognised by secret tags. Cars linked to satnavs will have mileage automatically debited while police monitor their speeds. Health and psychometric tests will determine who employers hire. Older people will be watched in their homes so relatives won’t need to visit so often.
Some of these scenarios are scary, but have nothing to do with surveillance. People failing to visit elderly relatives is sad, but hardly the fault of cameras. Employers already use daft and dangerous psychometric tests and can access too much information, but employment laws are what is needed to protect employment rights. As for drivers in peril for speeding, or congestion-charged for mileage, that’s all to the good. And if Tesco knows what I buy, I am having trouble frightening myself. Certainly, the accuracy of information is vital – everyone needs the right to check and amend their records. But the chance of errors will be lessened, not increased, as technology advances.
What about the DNA data bank? In principle, it is no more alarming than a more effective fingerprint database. If the objection is that thousands of the innocent have been logged, then why shouldn’t everyone be on it? The gain in criminal detection is already clear; if there are fears then laws can protect against particular abuses.
If – a big if – the medical records system ever works, it would be a huge blessing: lost records cause frequent chaos. Everyone will see and correct their records transparently, choose to opt out of some information-sharing and hide parts of their record. Unauthorised access will leave identifiable footprints. The new children’s register is no threat either. The shocking discovery after the Victoria Climbié case that so many agencies had raised the alarm, but none knew about the others, makes it essential that concern is flagged up, with contact details of the person registering concern, but no details included for wider scrutiny.
Big Brother is the malevolent use of surveillance by a wicked state. But for as long as the state remains democratic we can decide what use is made of it and how we are protected from possible abuses. To refuse to use technology for fear of some monstrous future government is paranoid. Those opposed to the assembling of data are mainly from the anti-state, individualistic right. There is a sad lack of voices to praise the benign state these days. Politicians are too mistrusted and civil-service unions too self-interested, so who else speaks up for the collective good of government?
Conspiracy-theory, bad-state rhetoric has become the received opinion. The press fulminating against ID cards has less scruple about its own monstrous intrusions on privacy. The same Sunday Times that ran Rod Liddle’s rant against surveillance also carried a shocking gossip-column item – a journalist had rummaged through David Miliband’s rubbish bin looking at his papers. Press intrusion does a great deal more damage than our much scrutinised state.
Surveillance conspiracy mania is a symptom of something else – the wish for the middle classes to be victims too. This is a middle-class obsession by those who are least likely to be surveyed. There is some decadence in paranoid speculation about imaginary abuses when real social injustice is all around. Why aren’t people as angry about the galloping inequality in living standards between the 30% who will never own homes and the overpaid at the top who are fuelling property prices? Social mobility has come to a halt, crushed by this new era of mega-greed. Liberty is taking priority over equality, because it can arouse pleasing middle-class angst.
There are real threats to some civil liberties – imprisonment without trial, acceptance of torture – but CCTV and ID cards are not among them. There is a moral blindness in pouring out so much righteous indignation over potential minor infractions against liberty while largely ignoring gross inequality.