Saturday, August 26, 2006

Eroding liberty by the pound

More on Government plans to share information on citizens. In the Telegraph today:

By extending the reach of the state and breaking down the principle of functional separation between government departments, you set up the mechanisms by which a future government might abuse its citizens. What is in the "public interest" is subject to capricious changes of definition, as we all know. "Trust us, we mean well" is not enough of a guarantee.

Two dicta are appropriate here: "knowledge is power" and "information wants to be free". We return to the principal problem with ID cards. The best way - the only way - to prevent a government abusing a comprehensive database on its citizens is to prevent that database existing in the first place.

Spot on. The erosion of civil liberties and consequent shift in the relationship between government and the governed doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a more gradual process, akin to those old anti-litter adverts (‘my little piece of litter won’t do any harm’), until one’s surroundings have changed beyond recognition. It’s the steady accretion of changes that, taken one at a time, don’t seem shatteringly important but, over time, make the unconscionable both possible and thinkable. The only defence is to challenge the first step that infringes established principles, no matter how trivial it may seem.

However well-intentioned Government plans may be, it’s useful to remember the words of Louis Brandeis, the former US Supreme Court Justice:
"Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government's purposes are beneficial.The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding."


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