by Philip Johnston
This fine and very pertinent article by Philip Johnston appeared a couple of weeks ago on www.telegraph.co.uk. The GOS thinks it's so bang on target that we're reproducing it in full …
What will Tony Blair be remembered for? The post-war debacle in Iraq? Billions largely wasted on unreformed public services? Half-baked constitutional reforms that have threatened the integrity of the United Kingdom?
How about the erosion of privacy and the transformation of Britain into the most snooped-on country in the world this side of Pyongyang? We have more CCTV cameras than the rest of Europe put together. We have thousands of speed cameras linked to numberplate recognition databases. We await with trepidation the arrival of the national identity database from 2008, entry on to which will make it an offence, for the first time, not to inform the "authorities" when we move home.
Again, for the first time, our medical records, perhaps our most intimate personal information, will be available on a national data "spine", rather than kept within the confines of our GP's files. Details of children will be placed on another database, with no obvious limit to how long this information will be kept. Will a classroom transgression pop out of the system 20 years hence to scupper some job application, with the victim unaware why?
Last week, in a significant announcement issued under the guise of an innocuous-sounding "information-sharing vision statement", the Government proposed to reverse the presumptions of confidentiality under which Whitehall has, until now, conducted its relationships with businesses and individuals. Departments will be able to share personal information obtained for one purpose with other departments that might want it for an entirely different reason. In effect, they will be able to gather all this data in one place, something we were always assured would not happen.
And there is more. The Government is about to enact the controversial part of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) that it has held back for almost six years, after obtaining support for the legislation in Parliament on the grounds that it was crucial to the fight against terrorism and crime. If it was so important, why the delay? It makes it an offence not to give the police the key to an encrypted computer entry, should they request it. Failure to do so will mean a long prison sentence.
Now, I hear you say, so what? Surely all of these developments (and most have happened since Mr Blair came to power) are for our own good: to stop bad driving, track down criminals, save children from abuse, ensure prompt medical treatment, identify illegal immigrants and deter terrorists. The fact that there has been very little comment about Ripa, after such a huge fuss was made six years ago, suggests we have all become inured to such intrusions and hardly notice them - unlike visitors, who do. Relatives in London from America last week were shocked by the number of cameras everywhere and found them deeply sinister.
Have we have been bludgeoned into accepting the end of privacy? We now take it for granted that if someone refuses to hand over their data encryption key to the police, they must have something to hide. Perhaps they have, but it doesn't make it the business of the state unless it is illegal. There are plenty of people who want to keep things secret simply because they do not want others to see them.
Samuel Pepys wrote his diaries in shorthand (though the first transcribers thought they were encoded). If he were writing today on a computer, he would almost certainly have encrypted his entries, not because he was doing anything unlawful, but because he did not want his wife to find out what he had been up to with other women, nor certain notables to discover what he thought of them. They were private.
Now, on the assumption that we are all potential criminals, a new law will render such attempts at secrecy illegal. We may think we live in such a godforsaken world that, for the benefit of the majority, any concept of personal freedom as we used to understand it should no longer apply.
This is certainly the view of the Government. The Home Secretary, John Reid, said recently: "Sometimes we may have to modify some of our own freedoms in the short term in order to prevent their misuse by those who oppose our fundamental values and would destroy all of our freedoms." The Government believes it has struck the right balance and is supported by those who subscribe to the "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" school of thought.
But the true criminal/terrorist/paedophile will find ways around this legislation, because that is what these people do; and those caught by it will often be unsuspecting innocents who have received an unsolicited encrypted message or have used a code in the past and forgotten the key.
I am by no means an "ultra" in these matters. There are clearly times when heightened surveillance is needed and, given the substantial threat of terrorism, this is one of them. It is also undoubtedly the case that paedophiles will try to hide their revolting photographic trade from prying eyes. But this Act is very widely drawn and can be invoked on the grounds of national security, for the purpose of preventing crime and "in the interests of the economic well-being of the UK". The scope here for misuse is clear.
There is also the concept of proportionality to be considered. Are we so embattled that we need, in Mr Reid's words, "to modify some of our own freedoms" to the point where they are almost unrecognisable from the liberties that our forefathers fought and died to preserve?
Once you accept that the government has the right to know where you are at all times, to demand that you tell its agents when you move home or to render up your private musings at its behest, then you have changed the nature of the individual's relationship to the state in a way that is totally alien to this country's historic, though ill-defined, covenant between the rulers and the ruled.
If enough people say "so what?" to that, as well, then Mr Blair really has left a legacy, and it is a pernicious one.
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