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The bank-spying bill is an outrageous assault on privacy

The UK government is quietly planning to monitor people’s financial transactions.

Georgia L Gilholy

Topics Politics UK

Under a system of ‘anarcho-tyranny’, a government persecutes and heavily restricts ordinary citizens, while failing to enforce the law against wrongdoers. While disorder and crime go widely unchecked, innocent people can expect to receive an iron fist from the state, rather than a helping hand.

It is hard not to see at least some parallels between this imaginary, dystopian system and the UK in 2023. It often seems as if our institutions have concluded that it is easier and cheaper to harangue people inclined to respect the rules than to punish those who do not.

For instance, an arm of the UK military was recently found to have relentlessly ‘monitored’ journalists, politicians and ordinary citizens who dared to criticise the government’s pig-eared Covid-19 policies, which barred people from education and from socialising for the best part of two years. Meanwhile, in 2020, the stringent enforcement of lockdown rules had numerous farcical consequences, from the police inspecting shopping baskets for Easter eggs to the imprisonment of an elderly man for the ‘crime’ of serving mince pies in the run-up to Christmas.

The latest example of a crackdown on innocents comes in the form of the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill, which has just passed its third reading in the House of Commons. Last week, the Tory government very quietly inserted a clause into the bill that would allow the state to monitor vast numbers of people’s bank accounts. This so-called bank-spying clause is ostensibly aimed at cracking down on benefit cheats, but its remit is actually far wider than this.

The new law could result in a tidal wave of government intrusion. As it stands, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) may only request access to people’s bank records on a case-by-case basis, if it already has evidence to suspect fraud, as with most other criminal investigations.

But if the government gets its way, the DWP will be permitted to direct banks or building societies to conduct mass monitoring of their account holders, regardless of any suspicions of fraudulent activity. Banks will then process the data of all their account holders in order to search for those customers who are welfare recipients. Data from these accounts could then be sent to the DWP.

Secretary of state for work and pensions Mel Stride insists that the planned powers ‘will be used proportionately’. But how can we trust this reassurance? The bank-spying clause’s vague language suggests that a broad range of information from people’s bank records could be requested by the government, potentially revealing private and sensitive details about individuals – including their political affiliations, relationships and lifestyle choices.

Indeed, the bill’s language is so broad that the state could soon be harvesting information about people who simply know a welfare recipient. Section 3(a) says that monitoring can be extended to anyone ‘linked’ to the receipt of a benefit. Although Section 2(6) seems to imply that ‘linked’ means the same person claiming said benefit, the term remains vaguely defined, potentially encompassing not only the claimant, but also others such as ex-partners, cohabitants, children or landlords.

Once this private information is in the hands of the government, we should not assume that it will be safe. The Home Office and Foreign Office were recently hacked over a period of months by suspected Russian and Chinese agents.

Especially chilling is the implication in the bill that these new powers could be used to penalise benefit claimants automatically (there are no legally binding caveats to suggest otherwise). This is a recipe for disaster. Just consider the Post Office scandal, when hundreds of sub-postmasters were plunged into legal hell for decades, after a computer-accounting system falsely implicated them in theft. Similarly, countless small-business owners complain that the digitisation of HMRC has ‘suffocated’ their livelihoods, with thousands of businesses being wrongly investigated for tax fraud. Why should we expect the results of the bank-spying bill to be any less chaotic and unfair?

Given that the new monitoring powers are mostly aimed at benefit claimants, it is clear that any mistakes made will disproportionately affect disabled people, their carers and poorer people generally. These are precisely the kinds of people who are far less likely to have the financial or social safety net you’d need to deal with a legal dispute. Meanwhile, this crackdown on the vulnerable is occurring just as billions of pounds are being frittered away by wealthy tax avoiders.

Aside from all of its practical problems, the bank-spying clause represents a grave violation of our common-law tradition that we are free to do as we please, unless what we want to do is expressly forbidden by the state. Instead, we face being monitored by the state even when we are not suspected of breaking the law.

If the government presses ahead with its plans to snoop on our private transactions, it will confirm that it holds ordinary citizens and our liberties in contempt. This must be resisted.

Georgia L Gilholy is a freelance journalist living in London.

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Topics Politics UK

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