There’s a delicious moment in Alastair Beaton’s satirical film, The Trial of Tony Blair, in which the former prime minister is finally arrested for war crimes on a warrant from the international criminal court. One scene shows the standard police procedure as Blair is inducted by the desk sergeant in a London station. Towards the end of the rigmarole, the policeman moves to take a saliva swab from him.
Blair is aghast, asks him what he is doing and – after the policeman has explained that’s he’s taking a DNA sample – asks who brought in such a stupid law. “You did, sir,” is the response.
The irony, of course, is that Blair led New Labour down the path towards an authoritarian, target-driven, intrusive state. His administration dreamed up the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 handing draconian powers of surveillance to every goon and jobsworth in the land. He was the guy who undermined parliament and took the country to war on false pretences. Oh, and he was also the PM whose administration insisted on keeping forever on file the DNA records not just of criminals but anyone who’s ever been arrested.
All of this was brought to mind this week with the publication of Database State, an amazing report by IT security experts commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust in the aftermath of the loss, by HM Revenue & Customs, of the entire child benefit database in October 2007. Spurred by the HMRC fiasco, and all the subsequent data losses that came to light in the months that followed, the trust sponsored a meeting of academics and activists with an interest in privacy. These experts attempted to map Britain’s database state, identifying the many public sector databases that collect personal information about us.
Not surprisingly, the task proved to be too big for one seminar, so the trust commissioned the Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR) to conduct the most comprehensive survey ever of Britain’s government databases. The report was published last week (it’s available online at www.fipr.org) and makes sobering reading for anyone who cares what’s happened to this country since Blair & Co swept to power in 1997.
Of the 46 databases assessed, only six are found to have “a proper legal basis for any privacy intrusions and are proportionate and necessary in a democratic society”. Eleven are “almost certainly illegal under human rights or data protection law” and “should be scrapped or substantially redesigned”, while the remaining 29 were found to “have significant problems and should be subject to an independent review”.
The creation and updating of these databases is central to the Blair/Brown “transformational government” programme, for which the government is currently unable to attach an estimated cost. But the UK public sector currently spends £16bn a year on IT projects and had – at least until the credit crunch – planned to spend £100bn on databases and related stuff over the next five years.
Even these days, these are huge sums, which reflect the New Labour belief that IT systems will one day give the government the information it needs to control every aspect of our lives, defeat terrorism and eliminate crime. Much of the proposed expenditure is devoted to enabling colossal official databases to talk to one another.
The goal is that one day the government will have a seamless cradle-to-grave electronic record of every aspect of a citizen’s life. It will track school and medical records, every phone number dialled, every email and text message sent and received, every website visited, every speeding fine and passport issued, every vehicle registered, every mortgage or loan taken out, every foreign trip undertaken, every tax return filed and benefit claimed. And, of course, every encounter with officialdom. It’s an Orwellian nightmare rationalised by the need for efficiency in the spending of public money but designed to change forever the relationship between the individual and the state.
The FIPR/Rowntree survey has uncovered the extent to which the UK government is already operating outside the law. That would once have been enough to call a halt to New Labour’s Orwellian project. But those days have gone. The only thing that will stop Britain’s descent into the National Surveillance State is a change of government. Fortunately, looking at the opinion polls, we might not have too long to wait.