Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Private lives don't belong to the public, they belong to the state

Aaro returns to a theme, in a column that reads much, much longer than its word length. And once more, my mind boggles because I don't understand - how can a person so exquisitely sensitive to the need for privacy on the part of politicians and business leaders, and at the same time be one of the leading journalistic supporters of the database state? Aaro is completely happy about the rest of us having our movements tracked by CCTV, our DNA records kept on file, our living arrangements scrutinised under "anti-terrorism"[1] powers, our medical records up for sale to anyone who cares to buy them. Why does he think we're less concerned about our privacy than John Terry or Gordon Brown?

In the past, he's retreated into a "security through obscurity" defence, just basically laughing off the whole business by saying that his life would be much too boring to be worth investigating, hardy har. Which it might be for the SIS (although this would probably be more true of you and me than Aaro, what with us not being a Times columnist with a Communist party past and all sorts of contacts at various levels of government), but do you know what? Everybody's interesting to someone. These powers are available to civil servants of a ludicrously low security clearance and have been used in respect of school catchment areas and rubbish dumping. This can't be emphasised enough - under the current arrangements, the powers trading under the brand name "anti terror" can be used at the caprice of nearly any official, with next to no oversight. In order to be happy with this, you need to be someone who trusts, sight unseen, the good faith and probity of more or less every single local government officer in the UK.

I end up concluding that Aaro hasn't really thought this one through, and that what we're seeing is just the reflex action of someone who actually basically does think that there ought to be one rule for Party members and another for the proles, with increasing privacy and privilege the further up you go. He is a past winner of the Orwell Prize after all. (Update: People who were paying attention in O-level Eng Lit don't seem to think much of this analogy, see comments).

19 Comments:

Blogger Benjamin said...

He has a classic authoritarian mindset; he has been described as a kowtowing journalist of the court. I wouldn't trust him with civil liberties as far as I could throw him.

2/17/2010 10:05:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

BB: Aaro hasn't really thought this one through, and that what we're seeing is just the reflex action of someone who actually basically does think that there ought to be one rule for Party members and another for the proles

Up to a point, but I think even that is a bit too charitable - to my mind bordering on the fantastic - and might even be seen as falling on the wrong side of the false 'cock-up not conspiracy' dichotomy.

I mean, I know he's not exactly brain of Britain, but he can't really be that disingenuous about his role as a Murdoch propagandist, surely?

P Hitchens is very clear about what he's expected to produce for the Mail as a condition of continued employment and is becoming increasingly unhappy about it (though nowhere near as unhappy as he should be).

Aaro on the other hand seems unlikely to have any such misgivings. Even if so I imagine his bizarrely perverse self-image as a challenger of 'received wisdom' (cf Richard out of Richard and Judy) can easily keep any such unease at bay.

At best, and to reprise your Orwellian theme, there's something akin to doublethink involved in such obligingly malleable opinions.

2/17/2010 11:13:00 AM  
Blogger Andrew Bartlett said...

"one rule for Party members and another for the proles"

But wasn't it constant surveillance and paranioa for Party members, while the proles lived *relatively* free lives?

2/17/2010 12:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@3

True, but that's very Aaro too. "See how happy the proles are shopping at tesco and sat snug in front of their plasma screens. They're not paranoid about the surveillance that keeps us all safe, they welcome it."

Aaro's basically an inner party member lecturing the outer party members on how life has become "more cheerful now, comrades"

rioja kid

2/17/2010 01:29:00 PM  
Blogger Andrew Bartlett said...

RK, yes, that works very well.

2/17/2010 01:36:00 PM  
Blogger cian said...

P Hitchens is very clear about what he's expected to produce for the Mail as a condition of continued employment and is becoming increasingly unhappy about it (though nowhere near as unhappy as he should be).

well judging by that piece (rambling, lacking any passion, point or purpose), DA isn't terribly excited by the prospect.

2/17/2010 01:55:00 PM  
Blogger Captain Cabernet said...

I think, BB, that there are a couple of points where I'd demur. RIPA increased the level of scrutiny required. Second, for all kinds of activities, local authorities (not the police) are the ones who are the prime investigatory authority. If you have people who are running a fly-tipping business, it doesn't seem to me to be the first step towards the jackboot when council officers video them in the act.

2/17/2010 01:59:00 PM  
Anonymous dd said...

it doesn't seem to me to be the first step towards the jackboot when council officers video them in the act.

depends on whether you're talking about overt (ie CCTV) or covert surveillance here. The legal authority to follow people about and record their behaviour without telling them what you're up to is so obviously easy to abuse that I'm really not comfortable having it exercised at the more or less complete discretion of the fly-tipping unit. It's not so much the jackboot I'm worried about as an army of taxpayer-funded amateur snoopers. If you compare RIPA with the Data Protection Act you can see how much the standard of oversight has slipped.

2/17/2010 02:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

OTOH, pre-RIPA, there was nothing stopping all manner of official bodies following people around. And they did.

DPA is (to a first approximation) the bastard child of the Lindop report, itself the result of the 'databank panic' of the early 1970s. RIPA, on the other hand, was born in a different England, one more tolerant of the surveillance of Bad People.

FOI doesn't really fit into this genealogy, save perhaps only as the last hurrah of the liberal Hewitt. It's better explained as one of the low-cost political things (incl devolution) that NuLab decided to promise in the mid 1990s to balance the fact that they'd stopped paying even lip-service to social democracy.

NB the above paragraphs are massive over-simplification, and should in no way lead to me being laughed out of the Surveillance Studies Network.

Chris Williams

PS Fly-tippers can in fact piss right off: indeed, they screw up my life far more than largely-putative terrorist conspiracies could ever hope to.

2/17/2010 03:24:00 PM  
Anonymous dd said...

But fly-tipping is a bad example for me to pick as it is a crime that more or less by definition happens in a public space, so it's not really a matter of "surveillance". The really creepy one as far as I'm concerned is the lengths that some councils have gone to over school catchment area residence - since these literally can involve monitoring who is sleeping where, they're really not too far off Stasiland, and obviously wildly prone to abuse, since it gives a quite large class of people a legal pretext for snooping around (and since a lot of these cases turn on whether a divorced or separated couple are actually living together, the information one might turn up in the course of even a 'legitimate' investigation would be something I'd rather trust only to those arms of the state that have a developed culture of knowing how to deal with them).

2/17/2010 03:36:00 PM  
Blogger Captain Cabernet said...

something I'd rather trust only to those arms of the state that have a developed culture of knowing how to deal with them

Well I'm sure I overgeneralize from personal experience, but I have a far higher level of trust in the integrity of members of my local trading standards team than I have in the regular police. Local trading standards refused to assist the bill in their harrassment of a relative of mine. The police went ahead and then illegally shared information with a private trade association.

2/17/2010 04:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yabbutt, I'll bet you guineas to farthings that the DSS still employs ten times more people checking out who is shagging whom than all the councils put together. And that is not new. The new bit is that people who write to the _Mail_ know they are being snooped on.

CW

2/17/2010 04:26:00 PM  
Blogger mcgazz said...

When I worked for the DWP (dislaimer - this was 7 years ago), who you were shagging was the one thing they *weren't* interested in. Your status as single or part of a couple - the official terminology being "Living Together As Husband And Wife"(*) - depended on whether you had your own shelves in the fridge or shared food, did your washing together/separately, that sort of thing. Of course, this still involved 'snooping', but it was all overt.

* if the other occupant of your house was of the same sex, they didn't bother to check up on you, creating one of the very few legal loopholes that gay people benefitted (pardon the pun) from. This may have been changed now, in the name of equality, although it's still manifestly unfair that your benefit eligability depends on your relationship status when your tax doesn't.

2/17/2010 07:02:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

All the anecdotes about trading standards, local councils, even the DWP, is beside the point. It's not what they have done or do do, it's what they can do. (And by 'they' I mean all those with de facto access to the info and power, which includes the increasingly 'joined up' state as well as its decreasingly distinct private auxiliaries and those to whom it sells or leaks info.)

The massively increased powers and surveillance capabilities haven't yet bedded in, nor the current generation - who whether they knew it or not learnt their business under the influence of passé ideas like presumption of innocence, the rule of law etc. - yet been superseded.

The Thatcher-NuLab revolution has tilted (or rather up-ended) the balance in favour of the state/business axis, and it's going to take years for the full extent of this stuff to be realised.

Look at what is in the legislation (or rather what isn't, i.e. much in the way of clearly expressed safeguards and limits on discretion). That, with a supplement to take account of compliant judges, corrupt cops like Blair, and the recent tendency for the executive to ignore the courts, is the measure of state power, not the degree to which such powers and capabilities are currently used.

And another thing - it's not just Their 'good faith and probity' that we are now reliant on, but their competence, e.g.in not falsely labelling you a paedo or something, in not leaking data (the data that isn't for sale already), and in understanding what they supposedly are and aren't allowed to do (cos no-one is going to be checking up very effectively).

The R.K. on Aaro on 'proles': "They're not paranoid about the surveillance that keeps us all safe, they welcome it."

Spot on, and Aaro is badly wrong too. A whole generation of the 'socially excluded' has adopted face-concealing garb in reaction to being constantly on camera. I mean, that is what has happened, isn't it?

2/17/2010 09:06:00 PM  
Blogger Captain Cabernet said...

The Thatcher-NuLab revolution has tilted (or rather up-ended) the balance in favour of the state/business axis, and it's going to take years for the full extent of this stuff to be realised.

Well I don't disagree about that, and, in fact, the episode I alluded to involved very intimate collaboration between police and the corporate sector (including the police referring to a trade association as being "the lead investigator").

On the other hand, I think that the situation wrt local authority investigators is much greyer than you're making it out to be. It isn't obviously a matter of the state/business axis when they use covert surveillance to investigate *businesses* involved in fraud, waste-dumping etc. (Something that the regular police basically can't be arsed to do.)

I share some of BB's discomfort about the school places issue. But, basically, if your job is to allocate places fairly and you think someone is gaming the system (and thereby depriving someone else of a place) and you think that their method is to falsely claim to live at address X when they actually live at address Y, then watching X and Y to see who lives there looks like your obvious strategy. Someone caught out like that has no more claim to scream "invasion of privacy" than someone on disability benefit who is observed running the London Marathon.

2/18/2010 08:23:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

CC, yes I don't think there is much disagreement here. BB agrees that the fly-tipping example was not the best, and my point was just to add that really no current example is a good guide to the developments currently under way since we are in a (prolonged) transitional phase.

(BTW in case anyone could possibly have missed it, the earlier mention of Richard-out-of-Richard-and-Judy and the perverse claim of mistrusting 'received wisdom' is a reference to this)

2/18/2010 01:04:00 PM  
Blogger Bruschettaboy said...

But, basically, if your job is to allocate places fairly and you think someone is gaming the system (and thereby depriving someone else of a place) and you think that their method is to falsely claim to live at address X when they actually live at address Y, then watching X and Y to see who lives there looks like your obvious strategy

Yes it does - it's just that it's a tradeoff between the social benefit and the obvious potential for abuse.

2/18/2010 01:31:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

When I worked for the DWP (dislaimer - this was 7 years ago), who you were shagging was the one thing they *weren't* interested in.

Yep. My experience too (DHSS and then DSS 1987-93). Visiting officers (I wasn't one, but I read their reports and knew the rules) were very specifically not allowed to ask about sexual relationships. I also believe they weren't allowed to ask to see sleeping arrangements, although such information could be volunteered.

Now I wouldn't claim that every cowboy working for some of the Fraud teams didn't ever break those rules, but:

(a) that's why they were in their jobs rather than being the Sweeney they would have liked to be

(b) such evidence would have been thrown out if any case were based on it.

2/18/2010 01:32:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

This is weird:

The issue came to light when the Robbins's child was disciplined for "improper behavior in his home" and the Vice Principal used a photo taken by the webcam as evidence.

2/19/2010 06:24:00 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home