Friday, November 03, 2006

Not just a load of net curtains

It’s been an extraordinarily busy couple of days as surveillance and DNA retention both hit the headlines. I’ve been reading Dave Hill and also reflecting on a workshop about information-sharing at UCL yesterday (See Spyblog for a good summary) where I watched the jaws of several overseas information and privacy commissioners dropping at the extent of this government’s statutory powers to share information.

An interesting discussion started up on whether the real struggle over information-sharing was in fact a straight conflict between utilitarianism and privacy. We have a problem in the UK with that word ‘privacy’. As Dave points out, it has connotations of net curtains. We believe that privacy is equated with furtive behaviour, secretiveness and a guilty conscience (nothing to hide etc) but privacy is actually about far, far more than that.

Privacy is the mechanism by which we regulate our relationships with others. By deciding what we will or won’t tell someone about ourselves, we control intimacy and draw lines. Privacy is bound up with our sense of self. Alan Westin is far more articulate in his ‘Social and Political Dimensions of Privacy’:
“Changing personal needs and choices about self-revelation are what make privacy such a complex condition, and a matter of personal choice. The importance of that right to choose, both to the individual’s self-development and to the exercise of responsible citizenship, makes the claim to privacy a fundamental part of civil liberty in democratic society. If we are ‘switched on’ without our knowledge or consent, we have lost our rights to decide when and with whom we speak, publish, worship and associate.”
Viewed like that, privacy becomes one of the most fundamental human rights – it’s about whether we have the right to define ourselves.

We appear to give away our human rights and civil liberties far too easily in this country. Maybe the English Channel gives us a sense of untouchability; certainly it has protected us from close experience of what real oppression looks like. Maybe the 50 years since human rights instruments were framed is too long ago for anyone to remember just why they were thought necessary.

The last few years have seen a growing trend towards ‘blank cheque’ legislation, the details to be filled in later with whatever regulations a Secretary of State decides upon. A particular victim of this type of law-making, which sweeps away privacy by allowing practitioners to share information “notwithstanding any common law duty of confidentiality”, has been our right to choose who can access our private lives.

Apparently David Aaronovitch believes that we can prevent a totalitarian government from misusing these sweeping powers simply by not electing it. But how do you spot such a government? Those who are convinced that they are so right that citizens must be dragged into line, kicking and screaming if that’s the only way to do it, don’t necessarily advertise in advance. Rather, they erode liberties incrementally, or with appeals that draw on instant emotional reaction, or they exploit those loopholes left for them by predecessors who believed they were acting with the best of intentions.

Returning to the utilitarianism v privacy debate, as far as children are concerned, ARCH’s objections to the network of databases, with the Information Sharing Index at its hub, are on both utilitarian and privacy grounds.

What greater good can come of it? It’s not even as if it were intended for children ‘at risk of harm’ (although that particular piece of spin has been remarkably pervasive). The definition of ‘at risk’ has been expanded so dramatically that, by the DfES’ own admission, it covers 1 in 3 children. ‘At risk’ now means any child in need of services in order to prevent her failing educationally, becoming an offender or joining the teenage pregnancy statistics.

On the other hand, a great deal of harm can come from labelling babies as the future ‘menaces to society’ or identifying a child as an educational disaster zone. Meanwhile, this welter of information about so many children will inevitably hide the child who really is ‘at risk’ in the generally understood meaning: a child in danger of abuse and neglect.

Yesterday, Ross Anderson outlined a fundamental principle of good security engineering: you can have scale, security or functionality in a database. If you are really good at your job, you can build a system that incorporates two of these factors. Three is not possible. The Information Sharing Index is certainly on a large scale, so which of the other two factors can be dispensed with? Lose functionality and the most vulnerable will not get their services or protection. Lose security and you potentially put all children at risk of harm.

As for privacy, how do we help children to develop personal boundaries if we are sharing data on everything from their choice of school dinner to their aspirations for the future? You can’t tell children that they belong to themselves, and that they can say “no” to unwanted intrusions, if you are also probing their secrets and making them the objects of other peoples’ judgments. Respect for children’s privacy is essential to empowering them to protect themselves, and to enabling them to form healthy relationships.

So, utilitarianism v privacy? The Information Sharing Index fails on both counts, and nothing that’s been said in the three years since the grand plan was unveiled has persuaded me - or any of us at ARCH - otherwise. At best it will be an expensive waste of money that should be spent on genuine child protection and frontline services. The at worst doesn't bear thinking about.


At Friday, November 03, 2006 6:31:00 PM, Anonymous Dave Hill said...


At Saturday, November 04, 2006 8:32:00 AM, Blogger Carlotta said...

and very convincing. Thanks too to Dave for putting the tentative counter-argument and prompting this vital post, since I think the doubts he expressed exist in the minds of many and would clearly benefit from some refutations.


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