The state’s sorry record of self control

Britain has a truly rubbish history of protecting our natural freedoms, especially where new technologies are involved.

So the taxman wants to sell your personal data to commercial concerns, and may only be stopped by a Guardian data campaign or another democracy-busting last stand by the House of Lords.

This is hardly the first time the government has tried to trample over our basic freedoms.

Going by quite a few recent examples, the state’s instincts often run contrary to what you’d hope they would be: ensuring liberty instead of exploiting it for mega-state means.

Seen one way, these lowlights of government overbearance could be taken as proof that ‘the system works’ – that the ad hoc checks and balances in our system operate well, and the fourth estate is reasonably healthy (depending who you listen to).

Mine till you take it

But is it really such a great thing that the government needs to be reined in at all? Isn’t it blindingly obvious that my DNA belongs to me, not the police?

That personal data given for the purposes of collecting tax should not be moved outside government for any reason? (It’s not as if we have any choice in giving over the data in the first place, by the way.)

At some junctures Britain’s spies seemed to have been making up privacy policy on the spot

Should the state really have to be fought so hard on 90-day detention without charge, with only the unelected Lords able to slap down an irresponsible  House of Commons for drafting something so extreme and ill-informed? Fair enough that this was rolled back to 14 days in 2012 after the coalition government was elected, but that’s still a lot more than other western nations.

And much has been made of whether Snowden’s leaks were a good thing or bad, but at some junctures Britain’s spies seemed to have been making up privacy policy on the spot, without huge incentives to impose self control in using the vast data gathering machine at their fingertips.

False control

According the Guardian, some GCHQ staff working on one spy programme expressed concern about “the morality and ethics of their operational work, particularly given the level of deception involved”.

Great. But did they really have the freedom to hold back, bearing in mind how important so much of the spying was to their overly keen US partners?

As Brits wrestle with David Cameron’s declaration that we are a ‘Christian nation’, Channel 4 News’ Kirshnan Guru-Murthy suggested that ‘each to their own’ is more British than Christianity.

Maybe true, but it’s a philosophy that needs to seep far deeper into the psyche of the state, before we find ourselves asking the unelected end of Parliament to defend our fundamental freedoms once more.

© Matthew Bell 2014

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