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UK opposition plans to roll back ‘the surveillance state’

September 16, 2009

The Conservative Party Shadow Justice Minister, Dominic Grieve has launched a brief report outlining the opposition’s plans to introduce a new attitude to surveillance in the UK, and reverse many of the current Labour government’s policies. And it is mostly good, insofar as it goes. But, it is where it doesn’t go that is the problem.

The main measures include things we already knew, like a pledge to scrap the National Identity Register (NIR) and ID card scheme, and proposals to limit the proliferation of central databases and control the National DNA Database (NDNAD). However the Tories also want to abolish the Contact Point children’s database, restrict Local Government’s rights under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), strengthen the powers and functions of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and require mandatory Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) for all new legislation or other state proposals.

So far so good – and these are all things I have proposed myself at various times – but there are also some very weak or pointless elements. First of all, the attitude to the private sector is predictably laissez-faire. Though the report includes a long list of the data losses that plagued the Labour government over the last few years, they fail to note how many of them involved private sector contractors or partners. And their only real mention of the private sector is to suggest that the ICO consults with industry on ‘guidelines’ and the possibility of introducing a ‘kitemark’ (a kind of stamp of approval). These are both pretty much worthless and tokenistic efforts. The Tories, as much as Labour, fail to appreciate that contemporary threats to privacy come as much from the private sector as the public. Unfortunately recognising and dealing with this would require a rather more robust attitude to private business than either of the UK’s two main parties are prepared to muster right now. This, I guess, is the reason why the Tories talk about ‘the surveillance state’ as opposed to ‘the surveillance society’ (the term used by ourselves and the ICO).

Secondly, there is no proposal to do anything to control or roll-back the most obvious and intrusive aspect of the UK’s surveillance society, the vast number of CCTV cameras and systems operated by everyone from the police down to housing associations and schools. In fact there is not a single mention of CCTV or public space surveillance in the report. Rather than missing an elephant in the room, this is more like failing to notice a whale in your bathtub…

Finally, there is the suggestion to introduce a right to privacy as part of a ‘British Bill of Rights’. Certainly what privacy means in British law needs to be clarified and strengthened, but actually this could be done through amending the existing Human Rights Act to make it better reflect the European Court’s already published views on the interpretation of Article 8 of the European Directive. Unfortunately, the Tories are stupidly ideologically opposed to doing anything to strengthen the HRA, and in fact their proposed ‘British Bill of Rights’ is a rag-bag collection of populist proposals that will instead replace the most progressive change to British law for some decades.

Finally, there is no mention of any changes to the pernicious Terrorism Act or Counter-Terrorism Act, that have further undermined the presumption of innocence and other longstanding foundations of British citizenship. There’s no mention of previous legislation that restricted traditional freedoms like the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. In fact, there’s every reason to believe that the Conservative Party will be just as willing to clamp down on such freedoms in the name of the war on terror, or crime, or anti-social behaviour as the Labour Party, and no reason to suppose that they deal honestly with the underlying issues – which would mean, of course, telling people things that they don’t want to hear.

The full report can be found here.

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