This Big Brotherly love is totally misplaced

By Simon Davies, director of Privacy International. Response to ‘CCTV conspiracy mania is a very middle-class disorder‘ (THE GUARDIAN, 16/11/06):

Polly Toynbee has launched a magnificent but spectacularly dangerous argument for mass surveillance across Britain (CCTV conspiracy mania is a very middle-class disorder, November 7). With sweeping brush-strokes she trashes concern over CCTV, DNA databases and identity cards as a middle class “righteous indignation” underpinned by a sinister and self-absorbed “moral blindness”. For Ms Toynbee, the battle against “gross inequality” is the only game in town, and we middle-class conspiracy nuts are getting in the way of solving that problem.

“The world is a dangerous place,” she argues. “A heating globe threatens drought, war and mass migration … Terrorists may blow up proliferating nuclear power stations.”

Against this terrifying backdrop, Ms Toynbee proceeds to argue that concerns over a Big Brother society are trivial and misguided. Then, striding confidently out of the box, she argues that Big Brother is necessary to prevent injustice and inequality. This is a non sequitur on a spectacular scale.

Ms Toynbee tells us of an estate where, she claims, CCTV had reduced crime in a shopping street and where prostitutes had moved away. But can we discard the evidence from every criminological study since 1993, each of which has condemned CCTV as a waste of money for all but the most trivial crimes? Better street lighting and even door-lock replacement schemes for pensioners would, they conclude, be a far more cost-effective investment. Sadly, most of our crime-prevention budgets have now been absorbed into the CCTV ygdrasil and there is no more money left for these valuable initiatives.

And what about the DNA data bank? Apparently it is “no more alarming than a more effective fingerprint database”. If the objection is that thousands of the innocent have been logged, she argues, then why shouldn’t everyone be on it? Perhaps we should turn that question over to the police, more than half of whom refused to add themselves to the national DNA database, citing fears that the samples could be used for indiscriminate paternity checks.

Ms Toynbee seems keen on biometrics and ID cards, arguing that the civil-liberties case eludes her. Interestingly, the civil-liberties case doesn’t elude blind and visually-impaired people, who will find using some of the technology onerous. It doesn’t elude some ethnic minorities, who know from biometric field trials that they will suffer discrimination because of a technology that inherently favours white people. It doesn’t elude groups representing the homeless and the mentally and physically challenged, who fear the technology will discriminate against the people they represent.

We are also bluntly told: “The new children’s register is no threat either.” An interesting assertion, particularly as it flies in the face of every credible security principle in the book. Centralising sensitive data on vulnerable people always creates additional risks. Information technology might well be theoretically neutral, but its application will entrench the inequality and discrimination that Ms Toynbee so nobly seeks to fight.