Friday, February 6, 2009

Does all this surveillance work?

At the back of my mind there sits the uncomfortable thought that, having promised to reply to the comments on what is to be done with the BrugesGroupBlog, I have not yet done so. All I can say is that I have been thinking them over and shall respond, maybe later today.

In the meantime, I am preparing for a short interview with the BBC Russian Service – the one part of that noisome organization that one can approve of and, needless to say, a part that is under constant threat of cut-backs and closures. They wish to discuss the latest House of Lords Constitution Committee Report on Surveillance: The Citizen and the State. So I am reading the conclusions with which I broadly agree – the balance in government thinking has long ago moved away from individual liberty and privacy to the notion that we exist for the state.

It is somewhat ironic that the BBC, which seems to have introduced its own methods of surveillance of private speech, otherwise known as snitching, should even begin to be interested in the subject. Then again, this is the Russian Service, where they know about such things.

What shocked me more than the behaviour of the BBC and its unpleasant denizens, Jo Brand and Adrian Chiles (of whom I had never heard before), has been the number of people who have commented on various forums and in letters to newspapers that the BBC was actually completely right and this is a real blow for …. well what exactly? That, of course, is what people can never explain.

On the whole opinion has been against the BBC, who seems to find no problems in having the most offensive comments (Jonathan Ross), examples of anti-semitism (Tom Paulin and others) or anti-Americanism (just about everybody from Justin Webb onwards) broadcast but runs in horror from the g word in private.

I prefer not to use the word Orwellian in ordinary political discourse because like so many of those convenient expressions it is frequently abused. In this case, however, it is entirely apt. Those who recall “1984” will know that when Winston Smith is first arrested he finds, among others, his erstwhile colleague Parsons in gaol with him. Parsons tells him with great delight that he had been denounced by his own daughter because he had said something bad about Big Brother in his sleep. The BBC and its denizens would probably approve of that, too. During World War II Orwell worked in Broadcasting House for a while and it is well known that he based his description of the Ministry of Truth, where Winston Smith works until his arrest, on that institution. He knew whereof he spoke.

Back to the House of Lords Report and its Recommendations. They are very detailed and I would recommend all to read them in full.

On the whole, I agree with them in that the ever expanding but highly inefficiently used technology of surveillance needs a great deal of control than the government seems to think.

They do not mention the fact that all too often these surveillance technique may flush out the parents who send their children to a school that is not in their catchment area but shows itself to be completely useless in the prevention of mugging and high-street robbery or, even, the apprehension of the perpetrator.

Their lordships say:
453. Before introducing any new surveillance measure, the Government should endeavour to establish its likely effect on public trust and the consequences for public compliance. This task could be undertaken by an independent review body or non-governmental organisation, possibly in conjunction with the Information Commissioner's Office.
I’d say we need to add another point: the Government should produce some likely calculation based on past experience of how effective the particular measure is in accomplishing its stated aims.

Meanwhile, I have finished my short interview with the Russian Service. My main point was that there is a serious division of opinion here between those who consider that the state exists for the citizen and those, who consider the opposite. While none of us have too many objections to the police using DNA to pursue people they suspect of committing a crime, we do object to them storing the DNA of innocent people just in case they turn up again.

One does not like the idea of children’s DNA being routinely collected and stored, in order to provide them with “a better life” and to ensure that they exist where and how the state thinks appropriate.

Interestingly enough, The Anchoress, one of my favourite American bloggers has a posting that is relevant to the topic. Of all the quotations she cites, I like this one, by C. S. Lewis best:
Of all the tyrannies, the one exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their conscience.
The real problem comes when those robber barons become omnipotent moral busybodies without changing their original spots much.

This posting is probably longer than one wants on this blog. I shall try not to do that too often. The picture I simply could not resist.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a comment on 'What is to be done'. I have no interest in the Bruges Group. I read this blog because you write it. You don't post enough at EU Referendum. If you are limited there you should get a blog of your own.