Privacy for me, but not for thee
Why do we complain about Lib-Con plans to police emails but not their plans to interfere in ‘chaotic families’?
There has rightly been outrage about the UK government’s plans to spy on everything we do online. The Communications Data Bill is indeed ‘incredibly intrusive’, as its critics argue. The bill is being referred to as a ‘Snooper’s Charter’, and it will undoubtedly, as one commentator said, turn us into a ‘nation of suspects’.
But how come no one bats an eyelid when the state puts forward plans to intrude into what it calls ‘chaotic’ families?
There is a great deal to get angry about in home secretary Theresa May’s ‘Snooper’s Charter’, unveiled last week. It will oblige internet service providers (ISPs), search engines, social-media sites and mobile-phone providers to store details of our communications so that state authorities can plough through them without a warrant. May’s suggestion that only terrorists, criminals and paedophiles have anything to fear from the new bill is lame; it comes straight from New Labour’s ‘if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’ textbook of authoritarian rhetoric. Her bill is also a massive volte face on the coalition government’s founding agreement, written just two years ago, which promised to be ‘strong in defence of freedom’ and to ‘end the storage of internet and email records without good reason’.
In condemning the bill, the pressure group Liberty pointed to the state abuse of earlier acts of intrusive legislation, such as the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) of 2000. That was designed to combat terrorism but is now used to spy on people who drop litter and even to follow and photograph parents to make sure they live in the right catchment area for the school they want their children to attend.
Should the Communications Data Bill be passed, it, too, will be used to survey all sorts of people, not just the ‘evil’ ones listed by May. Indeed, while the actual content of our online communications will not be immediately accessible to the authorities under the new law – instead the authorities will ‘only’ have access to information about when our communications were sent and to whom – it seems likely that the infrastructure needed to monitor content will be built in to the new system. Why would that be the case if there weren’t plans to monitor content in the future?
Liberty rightly said of May’s new bill: ‘Just like the internet, any private home can be a crime scene, but should we install hidden cameras and microphones in every bedroom in the land?’ So why, then, have we heard nothing from Liberty about government plans actually to intrude into the family home, particularly into the private lives of so-called ‘troubled families’? These plans were announced by prime minister David Cameron at the end of last year and were revisited by communities secretary Eric Pickles just last week, as everyone was getting het up over the Data Communications Bill.
The troubled-families programme is about encouraging a raft of state officials to meddle in the private lives of 120,000 ‘anti-social’ families. Social-services staff, police, teachers, job-centre officials and specially appointed ‘family workers’ – all of these will be invited to peer into the lives and homes of those judged by the government to be ‘chaotic’. Without generating even a whiff of controversy, Cameron said: ‘When the front door opens and the worker goes in, they will see the family as a whole and get a plan of action together, agreed with the family.’
So, it’s not all right for the government to monitor private email communications, but it is all right for its officials to enter the private homes of families and tell them to sort their lives out? Far from being criticised, as the Digital Communications Bill has been, the drive to intervene in poor people’s lives is often welcomed. Indeed, even commentators who often talk about the importance of privacy will jettison their principles when it comes to less well-off people, actively lobbying the state to ‘be less afraid of intervening in chaotic families’.
There is often a niggling discomfort with government plans to interfere with internet use or get Facebook to hand over private information. There is always concern when the government talks about introducing ID cards, more CCTV cameras, or telephone surveillance. Such blanket surveillance, which covers everyone, is seen as an unnecessary intrusion upon the lives of good people as well as dodgy people.
But when the state steps in to try to civilise unruly, less well-off citizens? When it monitors children’s lunchboxes, enters the homes of ‘chaotic’ families, forces everyone who works with children to undergo a criminal-records check? Apparently, these things are nothing to worry about. After all, you can’t trust just anyone to behave properly behind closed doors – kids might be smacked, allowed to play video games for too long, fed fast food and fizzy drinks.
The double standards in the privacy debate are striking. Less well-off people don’t deserve privacy, it seems, because they don’t know how to raise their children, create a family, or be responsible citizens. As Brendan O’Neill has pointed out, a magazine like the New Statesman will happily print actor Hugh Grant’s complaints about the ‘egregious abuses of privacy’ suffered by people like him, while at the same time one of its lead columnists argues: ‘I don’t think sovereignty in people’s own homes is something we should be striving for.’ Another commentator, who has championed a continental-style approach to public spaces rather than having too much CCTV, also complains that ‘early intervention’ policies in chaotic families’ lives don’t go far enough. Increasingly, a two-tier system of privacy is emerging, where privileged, well-educated citizens believe they should have the right to a private life, whereas the more Big Brother can police the chaotic creatures on council estates, the better.
The message is clear: privacy for me, but not for thee. When people cherry-pick instances of privacy to defend and fail to make a principled argument for the right of everyone to a private life, is it any wonder May, Cameron et al feel they have carte blanche to poke their noses into our private affairs?