Essays and discussions

Privacy in the UK

For the past few years, I’ve been getting more and more worried about the way that the UK government is encroaching more into our lives. This is perhaps most obvious in the attempts to set up a national identity card scheme, backed up by a database about every person in the country. The thing is that I’ve never actually tried to put into words what worries me. There are probably going to be several conveniences to be had through an ID card scheme, and the only worries that I’ve been able to come up with are hypothetical privacy-related ones. This essay will try to put those fears into words, as much for myself as another reader.

So firstly, why does it matter that people know things about me? Why have democratic governments traditionally taken pride in giving their citizens privacy? Is it some desire that is built in people in general or is it a concept born out of the Western mindset? To be perfectly honest, I have absolutely no idea. But I do know that people value privacy, and the right to be left alone, especially from the state. And the state has granted such rights, which have been built up over a number of centuries, from the Magna Carta onwards. And now the state is trying to take away parts of what it has previously granted. Using popular fears of terrorism and illegal immigration, the government has been able to push this legislation with little opposition within Parliament.

Secondly, does it matter that this is happening? Do I really care that sitting on some database somewhere could well be information such as the fact that my politics tend to be liberal; that I’m overweight; or that I enjoy role-playing? In a sane world, no. But I can’t help thinking of all the insane scenarios that could happen. Getting harassed on the street because of my politics, getting taxed more because of my weight, being burned alive ’cos all D&D players are satanists. The problem with all these scenarios is that they’re all incredibly hypothetical and if arrived at a situation when things like that were happening, then I think that we’d have more to worry about than privacy!

Thirdly, do the new changes being introduced mean that more can be known about me than is already the case at the moment? That’s a very good question and possibly fundamental to my concerns. Does it give them something new, or just make it easier to bring together already existing data? And from what I’ve read, it seems to be the latter – albeit bringing together a lot of data from databases very widely spread. Although the National Identity Register itself will be regulated, with a commissioner to guard it, what about all the other databases that will be attached to it, using the national ID number as a key?

Finally, there are also worries about the practicalities of the database. What can it provide that can’t already be done? How will it help prevent terrorism, control immigration, etc? I’ve not heard a straight answer to this from the Home Office or anybody else, and several arguments to the contrary. For the police, it seems like it will be very much an administrative nicety and it’s not necessary for tackling fraud (tightening up existing databases should help with that). Its major use looks like it will be in dealing with immigration, and even there, there are many, many issues (The Register article referred to below goes into this in detail and is highly recommended for background reading). One final concern for me is security of the system. The UK government doesn’t have the greatest track record on IT projects and this will be a huge one. Any networked database can face intrusion from the malicious or the merely curious, and I have no faith in anybody involved that sufficient measures will be taken to prevent this. Far from preventing identity theft, these measures could enable it.

At the end of this essay, I’m no closer to determining whether my fears on invasion of privacy are justified than I was at the start, but after reading up on the government’s plans, I can say that the practical proposals for this scheme seem unjustified to me, and the cost of the system (reported at £3.1 billion and likely to climb) is huge. But at the end of it, frankly, I don’t think that it can be prevented. The climate of fear that has been cultivated (despite the Home Secretary’s claims otherwise) and the Home Office’s determination to push the measures through will see to that. The best that those who are opposed to the measures can do is to try and ensure that a sensible system of checks and balances is in place to make sure that they don’t overstep their boundaries.

Further reading

  – November 2004

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