Should we be afraid of State 2.0?

When it comes to state surveillance, the problem is not the computers but a climate of fear and insecurity.

Rob Killick

Topics Politics

The news that UK prime minister Tony Blair will ‘spearhead a fresh government initiative to persuade voters they have nothing to fear from consenting to a relaxation of “over-zealous” rules which stop Whitehall departments sharing information about individual citizens’ has provoked opposition from various defenders of civil liberties (1). And if you listened to those who are most vociferous in opposing the government’s plans to link up its computers to share information about us, you would imagine that Marx’s view of the state as a body of armed men has been upgraded to a body of men armed with computers – a sort of State 2.0.

The rise of the surveillance society in Britain is closely linked to the decay of progressive political and civil society (see Why do we submit to the ‘surveillance society’?, by Dolan Cummings). However, the opponents of state surveillance today miss the point of this entirely and end up playing into the hands of those who are engaged in gathering more and more information about us.

One strand of criticism plays on the inefficiencies of government, in particular high-profile government IT failures. Phil Booth, coordinator of the anti-identity card campaign group NO2ID, said: ‘For a government that can’t look after its own employees’ personal information, and that is so plainly incompetent at linking computer systems, to imagine this will increase efficiency is ludicrous.’ While government IT failures have indeed been many and varied, technology is improving all the time. What will the critics of surveillance have left to say should these technology problems be solved? The implication of their focus on this aspect of surveillance is that they would be happy were the technology better.

Opponents also play on the prevalent cynical mood in society that is suspicious of government in general, often with little real basis. For example, a recent Yougov poll showed that 57 per cent of those polled thought that British politicians were corrupt (3). This appeal to cynicism was summed up by Shami Chakrabarti of the human rights group Liberty. In response to Blair’s new initiative, she said: ‘This is an accumulation of our government’s contempt for our privacy. This half-baked proposal would allow an information free-for-all within government – ripe for disastrous errors and ripe for corruption and fraud.’ (4)

Opponents of state surveillance such as Chakrabarti are trying to gain support by focusing on the general disillusionment with government which pervades British society, rather than the specific threats to liberty that are driving the surveillance industry. Those who worry about state surveillance would do well to focus not on the computers but on the source of the demand for snooping, surveillance and information-gathering.

The same YouGov poll which condemned politicians as corrupt also revealed that immigration levels, anti-social behaviour and terrorism were three out of the top four fears that Britons have for 2007. These types of irrational fears, and the general mood of insecurity that they spring from, give the state all the justification it needs for more information-gathering and surveillance. Indeed Chakrabarti’s focus on corruption and fraud would, if anything, tend to encourage the cynical and fearful views about British society which underline calls for more surveillance.

While one page of yesterday’s newspapers condemned Blair’s computer link-up plan, another demanded that something be done about the Home Office failure to log 27,500 criminal records of Britons convicted abroad on to police computers. This is a demand that home secretary John Reid is only too happy to meet. In response to the pressure put on him by this latest scandal he has already asked for government support to ‘overhaul the way the jigsaw of criminal record databases operate and share information. The review will not only cover the Criminal Records Bureau and the police national computer, but also the separate databases held by the education and health departments.’ (5)

Those who are opposed to state surveillance need to recognise that the problem is not the computers, nor even those who use them, but the general mood of fear and insecurity which pervades British society. This means that opposition to surveillance has to start with specific opposition to measures such as the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill which legitimises snooping and surveillance on a grand scale, or the targeting and policing of immigrants. We have to take on the pernicious idea that we are all potential threats to ourselves and each other which underlines much of the snooping agenda. Anything else is dangerous rhetoric.

Rob Killick is CEO of the digital agency cScape.

(1) Blair launches new drive to let officials share data on citizens, Guardian, 15 January 2007

(2) Blair rebuts ‘Big Brother’ claims, Guardian, 15 January 2007

(3) YouGov/Sunday Times poll results, YouGov, 20-22 December 2006 [pdf]

(4) Blair rebuts ‘Big Brother’ claims, Guardian, 15 January 2007

(5) Civil servant suspended over criminal files blunder, Guardian, 15 January 2007

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Topics Politics


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