Sunday, 16 March 2008

Big Brother Runs Amok in the U.K.

By M.D. Spenser

The British government, believe it or not, wants to examine every single purchase I made in the course of a year. And I have no choice but to let them.

It is yet more evidence that George Orwell, when he imagined the future in his novel “1984”, did not go far enough. Big Brother is watching us – and entering much of what he sees in computer databases.

The immediate cause of my dismay is that my tax return is being audited, having apparently been randomly selected for the privilege.

In my grumpier moments, I might suppose this is being done just to keep some bureaucrat busy. But I oppose tax fraud. I recognize the government has a right to do this.

I am by no means an anti-big-government fanatic. I believe government has a strong role to play in fighting poverty and preserving the environment, in building schools and protecting the rights of individuals.

I grew up in the United States, where a strong central government told state officials that, like it or not, they had to allow black people to vote. I have in the past benefited personally from government raising the minimum wage – something conservatives often portray as interference in a private agreement between employee and employer.

Process on its head

But information is power. And too much information in the hands of government is a bad thing.

Take my taxes. Of course, I must supply Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs with records showing how much I earned. But beyond that, the process is turned on its head.

I have done nothing wrong. And I was brought up to believe it was the government’s job to prove a person was guilty of wrongdoing, rather than the person’s job to prove his innocence.

Not anymore, apparently.

During the year in question, I was living in the U.K. whilst employed by an American company. U.K. tax officials have demanded that I give them monthly statements for all British bank accounts I had, whether personal or related to business expenses.

And they want monthly statements for all American bank accounts I had, whether related to the U.K. or not.

In addition, they’ve said I have to give them statements for every credit card I used on either side of the Atlantic.

Need to prove innocence

In this day of debit cards, that means that some bureaucrat now feels entitled to pore over every single purchase I made during the course of an entire year, with the possible exception of an ice cream cone or two.

To have government bureaucrats looking at whether I bought lingerie (I didn’t) or gambled on the internet (didn’t do that either) is unjustified and ultimately dangerous to individual liberty.

What is the difference between this and police searching my house, with no warrant and no suspicion, just randomly looking for stolen goods?

"If you’ve done nothing wrong, Mr Spenser, surely you won’t mind us rummaging through your underwear drawer . . . "

This not the worst of it. Little by little, we have got used to government recording our private activities. But it is so pervasive that Orwell would have considered it unrealistic even for a novel.

Constant observation

For example, we know that someone who works in London appears on camera several hundred times per day.

If he lives outside the city, he may be observed by speed cameras whilst driving to the train station. His pacing on the platform will be recorded by two dozen cameras or more. There will almost certainly be a CCTV camera in his train carriage, recording every time he picks his nose.

If he arrives at Waterloo, a couple of hundred CCTV cameras will greet him. And he will pass still more of them between Waterloo and the office – on the underground, in car parks, on storefronts and elsewhere.

And that’s not all. Oyster cards allow authorities to know what bus or underground trips a person makes during the course of a day, and when.

Authorities can determine what Web sites we visit, at what time of day, and for how long.

Biometric passports will mean that government officials will be able to determine, with the click of a mouse, whether a person is in or out of the country and how many times he or she has travelled over what period of time.

Mobile phone records, which governments are forcing companies to retain for longer and longer periods, pinpoint our location at all times.

And a frightening proposal by the British government to tax drivers according to what roads they drive at what hours would involve, presumably, satellite tracking of all vehicles in the U.K. 24 hours a day – and storing that information in computers so the proper bills could be sent out.

Is surveillance beneficial?

Two arguments are commonly used to convince people not to worry – or even that all this surveillance is actually a good thing.

The first is that on occasion it helps solve crimes. This is undeniably true. CCTV footage helped identify the failed bombers of the London underground. Mobile phone records helped track one of them to Italy.

But that argument is not good enough. It has been reported that robberies, murders, and other violent crimes were far less common in the Soviet Union than in the United States. But that does not make one long for dictatorship. Crime prevention does not justify repression.

The other argument, often made by implication, is that this government is benign, so all this information-gathering is OK. People often say, “I’m not doing anything wrong, so I don’t mind.” They leave unsaid the rest of the sentence, which is, “. . . because this government won't hurt me.”

That argument is not good enough, either. What business is it of government if a married woman has a boyfriend on the side or a salesman goes to a pub when he tells his boss he’s working?

To have that kind of information is to hold power over the person involved.

We have been inattentive as the surveillance society crept up on us. Who’s to say we won’t be equally inattentive in monitoring our politics?

What if the next government is slightly less benign than this one, and the one after that is less benign still? We could slide toward a government whose intent is not good at all – and that government could find itself in possession of a wealth of blackmail-style information with which it could cow citizens and discourage dissent.

We need to wake up and curtail government intrusiveness. We need to put an end to the surveillance society.

Government has a strong role to play in regulating society. But information is power – and freedom, by definition, requires that government’s power be limited.

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