Tag Archives: database-state

Why is Jenni Russell praising Cameron Come Lately?

Jenni Russell has written an article attacking ContactPoint, the much maligned national children’s database that the government are still insisting on trotting out. The only problem is, she has written it as a piece of Tory hagiography.

We might be able to let her off the title – Another invasion of liberty. And only the Tories are alert – as a bit of subbing hyperbole. I’ve written enough articles for newspapers over the years to know this happens. But she can’t blame the sub for the final paragraph:

Labour will not reverse this; only the Tories might. They promise to review CAF database, ditch ContactPoint for a small, targeted database, and invest in strengthening people’s relationships instead. It’s depressing that Labour supporters who believe in liberties, privacy and humanity should find themselves having to cheer the Tories on this issue.

I first became aware of ContactPoint due to Terri Dowty’s article in Liberator back in 2002. I couldn’t actually tell you when the Lib Dem’s formally adopted policy to scrap ContactPoint but the line was pretty clear in 2007. Here’s Annette Brooke raising the core concern about ContactPoint while the Childrens Act was being debated. It formed a central blank of our Freedom Bill earlier this year. Vince Cable even called for it to be scrapped in his Reform pamphlet published yesterday. The Conservatives came off the fence this June.

I think we can rely on Cameron to scrap this database since it is £200m he will badly need. In better economic circumstances, I wouldn’t be so sure. Either way, at a time when Guardianistas are habitually bemoaning how come the media don’t give Cameron a harder time, it seems odd to hand them so much credit and deny the Lib Dems even an acknowledgement.

Rafael, the thing about golden ages is that they tend to end

Congratulations to Rafael Behr for writing what is possibly the most complacent, ahistorical article I’ve read thus far in 2009. It’s not that any of the facts he alludes to are particularly wrong, its that he completely misses the point.

Can the era we currently live in be legitimately described as a “golden age of liberty”? In as much as any era can be described as a golden age, certainly. We don’t ban plays (even if certain individuals do manage to get them shut down from time to time), we no longer reserve social opprobrium for gay people or children born out of wedlock. I can declare, here, that God does not exist and instead of being burned at the stake, receive the odd plaintive comment. Christ, you can even walk down the street with a name like “Rafael Behr” and not get punched (I would imagine).

A note of caution: the whole notion of golden ages is at odds with liberalism. It is no coincidence that fascists, religious zealots and nazis (and superhero comics fans) love to bang on about them. By contrast, if you don’t believe that utopia is either attainable or desirable, you should be sceptical that any era could be described as a golden age. It is entirely unsurprising that all the golden ages in history have one thing in common: they all came to a crashing end and were often quickly followed by what can only be described as a “dark age.”

What is particularly dumb about Behr’s article, is that two years ago you could read remarkably similarly toned articles about the economy which drew the same conclusion: we live in a golden age, the pessimists who are predicting economic doom and gloom ignore the fact that we have enjoyed economic growth for X number of years; anyway, they are middle class wankers who live in big houses and have lived off the fat of the land; what about [insert reference to token minority group here]?

Our liberty and economic security go hand in hand – just as failing democracies tend to do worse economically, failing economies find their democracy under threat. The police and media are already irresponsibly stoking up the hype about 2009 having a “summer of rage.” “British jobs for British workers” is in danger of becoming the far-right’s new rallying cry (thanks, Gordon). Behr brags about how we don’t spy on our neighbours, blithely ignoring the fact that the government actively encourages us to do so when it comes to benefit cheats. He ignores the fact that the current government agenda is not merely to store information about us on computer, but to use that data to monitor people who seem to be involved in criminal activity (regardless of the number of false positives that will throw up). Whitehall knows less about me than Tesco? Well, I don’t have a Tesco Clubcard but even if I did, Tesco wouldn’t be able to use that information for much more than to sell me more stuff, and they can’t fine me £1,000 for putting someone else’s shopping on my card. And if I am forced to register for an identity card, the Home Office will know a LOT more about me than Tescos – or even Ryanair. If Jack Straw comes back with Clause 152 of the Coroners and Justice Bill (now dropped but will almost certainly return again soon), there will be almost no information about me they won’t be able to look at.

The whole “transformational government” agenda is only really about five years old. We are at the very early stages. Already though we’ve seen an emboldened police force arresting people for taking photographs in the street and banning boardgames which could be used in an act of terrorism. We’ve seen nonsenses like Form 696 (something tells me Behr is not a bashment fan).

Behr is keen to look at the past and remark how much more free we are compared to then. What worries civil liberties campaigners is that we are headed back there and that all the progress of the last 100 years will be for nothing. Ten years ago, I remember newspapers – even the Telegraph and the Daily Mail – prepared to contemplate that cannabis prohibition isn’t working. Now the Guardian and the Independent rail against skunk. Where will we be in ten years time? Fifty? Why should we take anyone seriously who feeds us with atrocity-porn about the past yet doesn’t address that?

Behr claims to “give thanks that there is a well-mobilised artistic [note this comes first in his order of priorities], media [second] and political lobby exercising the necessary eternal vigilance” but then immediately goes out of his way to belittle them in the very next sentence “I’m glad there are intelligent, dedicated people carefully monitoring our progress down the slippery slope, demarcating in units of kilo-outrage our incremental creep towards the thick end of the wedge.” In other words, he couldn’t really give a hoot. It won’t affect you after all, will it Pastor Niemöller?

Ashdown, Amnesty and the ippr

Background: last week I wrote a short article on Lib Dem Voice about the ippr’s new report on surveillance and data protection, pointing out how it had been funded and lamenting the fact that Lord Ashdown has, in effect, been used to legitimise the argument. This resulted in a furious response from Lord Ashdown himself, most of which I have dealt with in the subsequent comments thread.

There has been one lingering thread from all this which I have been quietly pursuing. Lord Ashdown listed a number of other funders for his Commission which I didn’t mention. These are:

DfID
Cabinet Office
The Foreign Ministry of Sweden.
Amnesty International

I didn’t mention them because they didn’t finance this particular report. Nonetheless it is true that the Commission itself has a plurality of funding. This hardly negates my argument, but if Lord Ashdown wishes that to be placed on the record, then fair enough.

But then I dug a little deeper, looking at the Security Commission’s section on the ippr website and scanning through all their publications. I could find references to the Swedes and DFID, but not the Cabinet Office or Amnesty. Since the Cabinet Office hardly counts in my book as pro-human rights and privacy organisation, I wasn’t particularly bothered if Lord Ashdown wanted to boast of getting money out of them. But Amnesty was somewhat more curious, so I have spent the last couple of days trying to find out the exact nature of their funding. And now, thanks to the helpful person running Amnesty’s Twitter account, I have it:

We do not fund the work of the commission per se, but contribute to a series of security lectures they hold. We do this to give voice to the human rights dynamic of counter terrorism. [Direct message sent to me]

Now let me be clear: as far as I am concerned, Amnesty’s role here is unimpeachable. They are doing exactly what I would expect a major human rights organisation to be doing. But it does highlight a couple of points coming out of Lord Ashdown’s missive. The first is that Amnesty’s funding is entirely unrelated to the production of this report and thus it is extremely misleading to even bring it up. They aren’t even contributing to core costs which would make them indirectly responsible for its publication.

Secondly, he stated that:

All funders are required to sign a contract which explicitly forbids them from trying to influence the content of what we publish. As it happens, one funder did try to exert this kind of influence and their money was returned to them immediately and they were immediately showed the door.

I’m sure they do all sign such a contract, but it is a silly one to make. They know exactly what they are getting. In the exact same way, it is not as if CAMRA are funding the ippr on a research project on community pubs (announced today) with any doubt in their mind that the research will conclude that community pubs are worthless and should be shut down. In the case of Amnesty, they are quite explicit: “We do this to give voice to the human rights dynamic of counter terrorism.

EDS, Raytheon Systems et al don’t merely have an agenda, they have shareholders and a fiduciary duty to maximise profits. I don’t begrudge them funding research but I do assert my right to highlight it.

I am unaware of a single disinterested IT professional who actually supports the agenda driving the database state. Equally, I have seen the sheer energy which has been wasted in countering apparently independent research on climate change which, it turns out, was funded by Big Oil over the past decade. We simply cannot afford to ignore the degree to which money is driving this agenda and what an unlevel playing field it results in. And that is why I am uncomfortable with a man like Lord Ashdown effectively lending it greater legitimacy that it would otherwise warrant.

I am genuinely surprised by how many fellow Liberal Democrats have sought to shout me down or belittle me for raising this issue, or claimed that getting told off by Lord Ashdown has left my credibility in “smoking ruins.” Whether my reputation is in ruins or not, I’m afraid I’ll keep blogging about this. Sorry to disappoint.