The Coalition’s War on Privacy

Source: PA

Published in The Huffington Post on Wednesday, 4th April, 2012.

It’ been a torrid couple of weeks for David Cameron. Ministerial incompetence combined with headline grabbing cock-up’s such as the Granny Tax, the Pasty Tax, a tax break for millionaires and the fuel crisis have produced an entirely self inflicted news cycle that refuses to die.

You have to feel for Armando Iannucci. Anything in the new series of The Thick of It will look positively tame in comparison.

The government has broken Westminster’s golden rule: they have done the hat-trick of getting the policy, the politics and the PR catastrophically wrong.

This trend looks set to continue with the Home Secretary’s announcement that she wants the government to be able to eavesdrop and spy on every single one of us. Plans laid out by Teresa May would allow the government to monitor – in real time – telephone calls, social media entries, internet usage and Skype conversations. This is being done (as it always is) under the guise of going after the bad guys.

This attack on civil rights, coming so close to the controversy surrounding hacking, is further proof of just how out of touch this government is.
I have written previously that hackgate, at its very core, was about privacy of the individual. What made the actions of certain journalists and newspapers so objectionable was the systematic intrusion into the private lives of thousands of people. It was justified by saying “if they have nothing to hide, what do they have to worry about?”

Despite the endless rhetoric, May’s proposals demonstrate that this Conservative-led government simply does not understand the wider argument.

The question of privacy is at the centre of the twenty-first century civil rights struggle.

We live in a digital age where the storage and flow of information is in a perpetual state of revolution. Faster and more effective means of managing that information are being developed almost daily. As a result, new safeguards are needed to protect that data. The relative ease in which journalists were able to access voicemail messages is proof enough of that.

The government’s attack on privacy raises a plethora of Orwellian questions. Who has the right to know what websites we visit and what phone calls we make? Who has the right to access our medical, financial and personal records? And who should decide what information the public has a right to know?

These are not new questions but they require new answers.

Britain needs a deeper examination of what rights its citizens are entitled to and, crucially, what protections it can (and should) put in place that enhance our civil liberties rather than further erode them.

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