Saturday 12 June 2010

So does it matter that Big Government is watching us?

Ian Dale chaired an extremely interesting – and potentially very significant – debate at the Institute of Economic Affairs last Thursday on the surveillance society and individual freedom. Honestly, you were warned – and you should have come along to hear it for yourself. It was one of those standing room only affairs - and well worth the effort to attend.

The speakers included Phil Booth (national coordinator, NO2ID), Philip Davies MP (Conservative), Alex Deane (director, Big Brother Watch), and Ross Clark (author, The Road to Southend: One Man’s Struggle Against the Surveillance Society). Initially, perhaps many people thought it was going to be one of those predictable occasions when everyone on the panel just agreed with each other.

Oh No.

A deep division emerged which will rumble on for some months. I predict. In his speech, Philip Davies expressed views which so provoked Alex Deane that Alex devoted his speaking slot not to making the speech he had carefully prepared, but in rebutting the points that Philip had just made. It was strong, passionate, stuff.

Why is this significant – because it’s not that often you get to hear two members of the Conservative Party airing their different views with so much passion in public. And when I say in public, I mean in a room full of bystanders, politicos, media folk, and even an internationally recognisable television celebrity.

At heart of the division was the purpose of Government, and how (or whether) surveillance can protect the legitimate interests of innocent citizens.

By all accounts, Philip Davies is an interesting politician. An MP for Shipley since 2005, he’s one of those people whose views are such that the Eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party did not field a candidate against Davies in the 2010 general election and campaigned for his re-election as a result of his anti-EU views. Take a squint at his Wikpiedia entry if you want to learn more about his position on a wide range of issues. I’m happy to wager good money on him remaining a backbench MP, rather than a representative of HM Government. Ever.

What did he say that so riled Alex Deane then?

Well, in a nutshell, Phillip was happy to support CCTV, the DNA Database, full body scanners and other aspects of the surveillance state on the grounds that most of these aspects didn’t actually “prevent” his constituents from going about their lawful business, and if the retention of the relevant information was used to protect his constituents, then all well and good.

If he were able, he would have his own DNA added to the DNA Database. The only reason why his DNA was not on the database was that the police had refused to take a sample as he had not been interviewed about or associated with an offence. And as far as CCTV was concerned, his constituents were crying out for more – and better – CCTV – and in as many public places in and around Shipley as was practicable. Philip then trotted the usual statistics on the range of crimes that had only been solved because the relevant surveillance material existed and had been passed on to the investigating authorities.

Alex Dean did not accept this argument, as it was his contention (broadly) that the collection of the information in the first instance was wrong. According to him, the benefits to society of any use of an extremely small part of the retained material were totally disproportionate to the detriment that was experienced by the rest of society, whose legitimate privacy rights were continually being ignored by a state who abused their ability to access the material.

Take the practice of requiring some people, as a condition of boarding a flight, to submit themselves to full body scanners in airports. Was it acceptable to run the risk that some of the images generated by passengers were going to be abused by the scanner operators - or that some frequent flyers may be caused harm as a result of repetitive scanning? Or should (selective) compulsory scanning be permitted as they increased the security of fellow passengers on the plane? While Alex argued that scanners were unacceptable (as you can’t trust the operators), Philip argued for their retention on grounds of public security.

You can see where this argument is heading. One side rejects the retention of material on the grounds that it may be abused. The other side required the retention of the same material in the hope that, subject to suitable controls, it can be used to protect the public.

And you thought that those on the Right always agreed with themselves? On issues of surveillance, evidently not.

I’m looking forward to blogging about how this issue develops.

For those suitably intrigued by what goes on within the walls of the IEA, the next event in this series will be held next Tuesday evening, where those interested in the Free Society will be joined by reps from the Adam Smith Institute, to enjoy some excellent wine and to ponder whether a big society can be a free society. Power or persuasion: what’s the big idea?