2009-04-06 16:59:46 UTC
Jacqui gets a taste of her ugly snooper state
There is a marvellous irony about the fact that, last week, MPs
discovered just how embarrassing it can be when private information
reaches the public domain. First up was the home secretary, pale-faced
and tight-lipped after the revelation that her husband had been
renting pornographic films at our expense. Overnight, Jacqui Smith had
lost dignity and everyone felt free to comment and jeer about the
couple’s attractiveness, sex lives and the state of their marriage.
The rest of her expense claims provided more material for outrage or
mockery; whether she was claiming for an extremely expensive sink
(£550) or an extremely cheap bath plug (88p), it was hard to avoid the
impression of a senior politician milking the taxpayer in an unseemly
and avaricious fashion and looking considerably diminished as a
Some MPs privately found her discomfort funny, but the next day the
rest of the Commons was faced with the possibility that embarrassing
claims of their own were about to surface. It turned out that the
details of every MP’s expenses had been copied and leaked and were on
sale to the media for an asking price of £300,000. The claims had been
due to be published officially in the summer, but only after every
member had had the chance to delete any details they wished to keep
private. The bad news was that both the original and edited versions
were now on sale, potentially allowing the rest of us to discover just
what nervous MPs didn’t want us to know.
Parliament’s indignation at this breach of security would have been
funny if it weren’t for the fact that these are the very people who
have voted for massive state intrusion on, and information gathering
about, the rest of us.
All along we have been assured that we needn’t worry about leaks and
that the security of our information won’t be compromised. Last week
we saw that the state can’t even guarantee the privacy of a few
hundred lawmakers, let alone their 60m constituents.
The naivety of the Speaker’s reaction was petrifying. He told the
Commons that he was deeply disappointed by the leaks. They should not
have happened. The outside contractor that had processed the claims
had been security vetted and had been employed “in good faith”.
Reassured? Me neither. But that naive approach is characteristic of
the state’s approach to our data. It doesn’t understand that it is
impossible to guarantee the security of the massive and comprehensive
databases it is assembling on us. Files will be lost or hacked into
but, above all, individuals will decide to snoop or leak. And that
leaves us extremely vulnerable.
Our actions are about to be tracked and analysed from nursery to
death. Forget the idea of growing out of your past; the state will
never let you leave it behind. Schools will record not just your
education, but also your family background and your behaviour. Fights
in the playground, late attendance, trouble with your mother, an
alcoholic father; it will all be there.
From next year, if social services think you need help, every detail
of their value judgments about you and your family will be held
online. All of this will be cross-referenced to ContactPoint, the
child database, which will link to every other service a child might
use, from drug advisers to psychiatrists to probation officers. No
child can escape being listed on it and a third of a million people
will be able to access it.
A middle-aged school governor and senior youth worker, who I know, is
left reeling by this development. She says she would never have had
her respectable career if the drugs, lies and stealing of her troubled
teenage years had been recorded to haunt and possibly expose her.
Every potentially humiliating detail of our adult lives is going to be
mapped, too. The National Health Service database will allow hundreds
of thousands of people to view our medical records, with anything from
abortions, depression, sexual diseases or long-term illness available
to view. The new communications database, accessible to all police
forces and 510 public bodies, will show that a judge watches porn
websites, that a banker is researching suicide, or that a celebrity is
continuously texting a woman who isn’t his wife. Meanwhile, the police
want the right to hold all their records on us until we are 100 years
None of this information will be safe. Already ContactPoint is
accidentally revealing the details of 55,000 vulnerable children,
whose contacts are supposedly secret, every time the database is
updated. At HM Revenue & Customs, more than 600 staff have been
dismissed or disciplined in three years for snooping and one woman has
been jailed for twice revealing the details of a battered woman’s
whereabouts to her ex-husband. Local authority staff in 30 areas have
been making unauthorised searches on the Department for Work and
Pensions database, curious about the employment and income details of
people they know. As the databases expand, the problem will only get
If we do nothing about this expansion of state interference then we –
like Smith – will have to live in the fear that at any time the gap
between our public and private selves will be mortifyingly exposed.