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I value my privacy

January 2011

“A good day to bury bad news” was the notorious response by a government spin doctor to the news of the destruction of the twin towers in New York.  She was properly castigated, but it was hardly a new thought; business and politics have been using the same technique for generations.  

In my youth I knew an elderly stockbroker who kept a list of public companies who held their Annual General Meetings at times and in places which discouraged shareholder attendance – on Bank Holidays in the remote parts of Scotland and Wales, usually – and refused to allow his clients to invest in them, on the grounds that if they did not welcome questions from  shareholders they could not be trusted. 

The technique is alive and well in our coalition government.  Whilst announcing their various reviews, with all the shouting about deficits and so on, tucked away in the fifth paragraph of Section 4A5 on page 44 of the The Strategic Defence and Security Review is a quiet note meekly announcing the resurrection of a Labour Party plan (which was dumped last year, in the face of considerable opposition) to allow the security and police authorities to track every phone call, email, text message and website visit made by us all if they argue it is needed to tackle crime or terrorism.  Providers will be required to store them all for at least twelve months.  Call me a cynic if you will, but that’s not my idea of a Civil Liberty. 

It’s not that I object to them having the opportunity to chase terrorists, or prevent crime, it’s just that I don’t trust them to understand the notion of boundaries.  It’s no good them promising me that they will only exercise these powers if they think national security is threatened – even if we could agree a definition of “national security” (which we can’t).  If you give these people that sort of power, some will misuse it, I promise.  Just remember the Local Authorities who have used so-called anti-terrorist legislation to track down parents trying to get round the school catchment area rules. 

And it’s also no good telling me that if I have nothing to hide, I have nothing to fear.  I have plenty to hide; we all do.  Nothing we are ashamed of, just lots which is no one else’s business.  I’ll express my political preferences through the anonymous ballot box, thank you very much.  My private, legal, financial or religious activities, if any, are none of their business and certainly shouldn’t be guessed at from trawling the records of the websites I’ve looked at or the texts I’ve sent. 

This attitude might seem a bit odd when you remember that if the internet is anything, it is public.  My Internet Provider (BT, in my case) already has access to a record of my entire activity online, and Google can look at all the emails I send and receive on my Gmail account.  They can even resurrect all the emails I have deleted.  

However, I am perfectly happy for that to be the case, because I have chosen to open my electronic heart to those companies, and could change them I wanted to and anyway I doubt that they have any sinister intent, beyond making a profit.  It’s true that Google looks at my emails and displays adverts that it thinks might interest me, but I could switch that off if I pay, and anyway it is an entirely automated process – not a real person reading my emails. 

No, I don’t mind them looking at what I do, any more than I mind a taxi driver knowing where I am going, or a librarian seeing what books I read, but I would be very cross if they breached my trust and shared the information with anyone else, including  the Government.  

The truth is that whatever law is enacted, those amongst us who want or need to hide their illegal online activities from the authorities will probably find a way to do it, and the expensive storage of billions of less interesting and perfectly legal transactions will be no more than a gigantic waste of time.

I am happy to tell our leaders what the law (or a Court) says I must, but beyond that I value my privacy too highly to want them to have these sort of powers.  It just doesn’t smell right.