Rolling back the data state

It is not often that the Government does something genuinely surprising. But last month it did – by discovering a belief in the individual’s right to privacy. Two announcements suggested a fundamental shift in its view.

The first was the decision to cancel the communications database, which had been expected to hold data on all voice, text, email and Web traffic. The second was an acknowledgement that DNA samples from people who had never been charged or convicted should no longer be kept on the national DNA database.

Just how important these measures are should not be underestimated. Until now, the state had seemed to be trying to build a data model of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon – the perfect prison in which individuals were visible to guards all the time and who would therefore (in theory) never seek to break the rules.

At the heart of both the communications and DNA databases was a presumption that it is more important for the state to be able to investigate citizens when and how it chooses than it is for citizens to be able to conduct their daily lives without this surveillance. In doing so, the Government was turning nine centuries of British law and culture on its head and betraying the “golden thread” of British law that an individual is innocent until proven guilty.

We need to challenge the drift in recent years towards a view that, if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear from such surveillance. The real point is that if you have done nothing wrong, nobody should be looking at you – not the police, not the intelligence services and certainly not minor public officials exercising rights gained under RIPA. By creating such all-encompassing data sets, the state was making it ever easier for petty bureaucracy to impinge on our daily lives and increasing the risk of serious intrusion. Backing down from such projects reflects an important rebalancing of the relationship between citizens and government.

So what has brought about the change of heart? Almost certainly legal threats (and recent case law) from within the European Union. More is to follow, not least settling the issue of whether tracking people’s every online move is legitimate or not. All we need now is for the national ID card plan to be scrapped.

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