Here comes Big Brother Britain – now stand up and fight for libertyAndrew Gilligan
YOU probably remember the famous lines of the anti-Nazi priest Martin Niemöller. First they came for the communists, he said, and he didn't speak out because he wasn't a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and he didn't speak out because he wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and he didn't speak out because he wasn't a Jew. Finally, they came for him, and there was no one left to speak out for him.
Britain will never be Nazi Germany. But in our steady march towards a police state, this could be something of a Niemöller moment. Until recently, perhaps even until now, New Labour ministers' mocking claim that civil liberties were a concern only for the "dinner party crowd" had some truth.
Ordinary people - the white ones, anyway - tended to approve of "crackdowns", ID cards and the rest. They believed nobody would ever come for them. These were measures against troublemakers, minorities, guys with beards and funny names. Nothing to hide, nothing to fear.
But now they aren't just coming for other people. They're coming for everyone. They're coming for the innocent. They are coming for you.
In a report published yesterday by the Institute for Public Policy Research, Sir David Omand, Whitehall's intelligence and security co-ordinator in the run-up to the Iraq war, discusses the active government proposals for "data-mining", where the private and personal data of everyone in the country - telephone records, emails, shop transactions, our very movements as tracked by number-plate recognition cameras and CCTV - is fed into giant computer banks to be analysed for "suspicious" activity.
"Such sources have always been accessible to traditional law enforcement seeking evidence against a named suspect already justified by reasonable suspicion," says Omand. However, "application of modern data mining and processing techniques does involve examination of the innocent as well as the suspect to identify patterns of interest for further investigation ... Finding out other people's secrets is going to involve breaking everyday moral rules."
Privacy, in short, if Sir David and his colleagues like the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith have anything to do with it, is over. He even says so ("modern intelligence access ... may have to be at the expense of some aspects of privacy").
Omand's paper is a model of the confusion that governs our new security state. He talks of safeguards but proposes only "a set of guidelines". He believes that the sacrifice of privacy is "greatly preferable to ... derogating from fundamental human rights". But under the European Convention, privacy is a fundamental human right and though there is a national security exception, this has been narrowly interpreted by the courts.
He speaks of the importance of maintaining "public trust in the essential reasonableness of UK police, security and intelligence activity". In the very week that British agents are revealed as apparently complicit in torture, talking about their "essential reasonableness" must surely be some sort of deep mandarin irony.
Omand speaks of the new electronic trawling-net as a means of countering terrorism but as he admits earlier in the paper, the Government has quietly redefined "national security" to include large numbers of threats (such as organised crime) which are not terrorist and which do not threaten our national security at all. We all know how anti-terror powers have already been used to spy on families suspected of cheating in their applications for a school place; Sir David's "guidelines" seem unlikely to protect us against that sort of abuse.
Indeed, it is hard to argue that even terrorism seriously threatens our security as a nation. In the past decade, terrorists have killed 146 people in the UK (87 of them in Northern Ireland and almost all the rest on 7/7), a decline of 88 per cent since the 1980s. Attacks may be deadlier but they are far, far less frequent; in the more than seven years since 9/11, a time of unprecedented Western-Muslim tension, there have been just two "al Qaeda" attacks causing loss of innocent life in the entire Western world. In Britain, hospital superbugs kill more of us every four days than al Qaeda has managed in its entire existence.
It is doubtful indeed whether the new powers will reduce the frequency of such attacks. They will simply swamp the agencies with unmanageably large amounts of data. The Government is adding an enormous haystack to its collection of needles. Besides, any terrorist worth the name will be careful not to leave an electronic trail or will leave a false one: it is only the innocent who have anything to fear.
That this is a measure specifically targeted at the innocent, and at our privacy, may finally be enough to stir the British public. As a people we have traditionally never been that bothered about "civil liberties" but a million leylandii hedges testify how strongly we feel about privacy. To attack it is to assault the G-spot of Middle England.
Things are stirring already: this Saturday, in London and across the country, an event called the Convention on Modern Liberty will represent perhaps the most concerted coming-together yet by people concerned about the destruction of our democratic way of life. (I am speaking at it, on press freedom - seriously threatened by the new database. If no communication is private, no confidential source will ever speak to a journalist again.)
The simple fact is that some things are worse than terrorism, and the Big Brother database is one of them. Even in the highly unlikely event that it could work, even if it could help reduce attacks, I would rather keep my privacy and take my chances. I would rather run the absolutely minute risk of being blown up than have my privacy blown away.
Throughout our history, we have always believed that liberty is worth some risk. In the Second World War, millions risked their lives for liberty; hundreds of thousands gave their lives. Now, when the risk is by comparison so much smaller, the death toll so comparatively tiny, we are shamed and surprised by our rulers' surrender to repression.
Here's a sample of the latest views published. You can click view all to read all views that readers have sent in.
It is very sad and very worrying how fast we are descending into an arbitrary tyranny under this government and how so very many people do not seem to care. Still, some of us do care and are ready to stand and be counted but we need direction and leadership. I hope this can be provided by Mr Gilligan and the Standard.
- Gordon (No Relation), London UK
What can we do ? Start by making a fuss. Write to your MP. Join "NO to to ID". Protest. Attend the public screenings of the Convention for Modern Liberty. Do this before this control-freak Nu-Labour "government" make such acts illegal - and trust me, in only six months they will be.
Protest now while you still have a voice.
- Clive Allen, Lewis, UK
cant quite remember who said this but it is so true - Britain is not a democracy, but is an elected dictatorship. We have been giving up our civil liberties piecemeal for a long time and our apathetic nature will continue to ensure we continue down this path until we do not have any
- Vij, london