UK coalition to halt computer surveillance

The UK will reverse and restrain many of the surveillance systems that have marked its citizens out as the most watched in the world.

The agreement on which the UK has formed its first coalition government since the Second World War combines numerous election promises made by its constituent parties, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, to protect citizen’s civil liberties against state and police agencies who have obtained unprecedented reach and power through the application of technology.

The coalition agreement also proposes the introduction of radical privacy protections into British law, along with a sweeping range of measures to enhance people’s rights to greater freedom from state intrusion.

ID cards scrapped
The national Identity Card scheme, for which the last government fought long and hard against widespread opposition, will be scrapped. The coalition has also promised to scrap the National Identity register, the database on which the Government planned to store biometric records of people’s identities.

It had been suspected that a government might scrap the ID card, but keep the database, and even retain the means of collecting people’s biometric identities using the next generation of biometric passports. The passports will also be scrapped, the agreement stated.

The coalition also promised to extend the popular Freedom of Information Act, one of the last government’s notable achievements. The Liberal Democrats had promised in their manifesto to extend the FOI act to private sector monopolies.

The call for greater FOI powers had become entwined in a wider debate about privacy and government accountability.

The Conservative manifesto had proposed that, “Wherever possible, personal data should be controlled by individual citizens”.

It was a radical measure that proposed even greater government accountability than others had mustered with calls for public data sets to be made open to the public.

This appears to have been subsumed in the coalition agreement into the less specific Libdem proposal for a Freedom Bill. The Liberals had proposed that the Data Protection Act should be updated, though the revision of this European legislation is ongoing anyway and may yet encompass the wider conservative proposals since the campaign for government to account for its personal data is gaining momentum elsewhere in Europe.

Greens and Pirates
To the Greens, greater privacy had meant to “free up information — allow us to see the data they have on us”. The Pirate Party had almost equated this with greater FOI powers.

“All available information that could be released through a freedom of information request should be made public by default,” said the Pirate manifesto.

These elements of the coalition agreement mark the astonishing progress made in the public use of computer systems and their implications for democracy.

When the Labour government had come to power the government use of computer systems was primitive and patchy. The then fresh-faced Tony Blair promised that within five years 25 per cent of all government services would be available online.

Thirteen years and billions of pounds later, the old ideas of data protection are giving way under the deluge of government data to an idea of privacy and liberty guaranteed by accountability and access, very similar to the principles already enshrined in criminal law. Such developments would be the only way that the surveillance state could operate without reversing the burden of proof, as is much feared it will.

Coalition committments
Other coalition commitments include removing innocent people’s records from the DNA database, regulating the use of CCTV, and calling a halt on the last government’s plan to retain records of the whole countries’ email and communications data.

The agreement proposed to “outlaw” the finger-printing of children at school “without parental permission”, though the practice has already become widespread.

It contained no reference to extradition law nor the plight of Gary McKinnon, the computer hacker under extradition order from the US, and for whom both coalition parties campaigned vociferously before the election.

The agreement was, however, drafted to meet the urgent need to give the coalition an accord on which it could form. Further developments may happen before McKinnon’s brings his last attempt at overthrowing his extradition before the high court at the end of the May.