Be careful who you share your details with

Sian issues a warning against co-operating with field trials for the next census. After all who are

Imagine for a moment you are in charge of a government agency that is planning to collect personal information about every person in the UK. There are good reasons for doing this: aggregated, the information will help to organise services, housing, schools, water supplies and many other things for which the government needs accurate planning data. However, the details held about individuals are considered sensitive – so sensitive that they won’t be released publicly for 100 years.

Add to these considerations unease about an encroaching ‘database state’ and ‘surveillance society’, which has meant a growing revolt against proposals for compulsory ID cards, as well as millions signing a petition objecting to the tracking of vehicle journeys for a road pricing scheme.

Given all this, do you decide to collect the information using civil servants and in-house data systems, or do you contract out the process to a private company? And if you decide to farm it out, what kind of company would you choose?

Perhaps you might not pick a company that is so tied up with the American military that 80% of its business comes from the US Defence Department. And perhaps you might have reservations about putting this data in the hands of a company that boasts “our knowledge management systems transform disparate data into actionable intelligence” or claims that its “heritage of delivering information superiority to the warfighter is applied to complex mission critical programmes in homeland security”. But (you will have guessed by now) that’s exactly what the UK Office of National Statistics is doing with the next national census.

This weekend, on 13th May, field trials for the next census in 2011 will take place in five areas of England and Wales. These will involve two potential contractors, and one of these is Lockheed Martin: the biggest defence contractor in the world; manufacturer of land mines, depleted uranium shells and Trident missiles; provider of freelance interrogators for Guantanamo Bay; and self-proclaimed master of ‘integrated threat information’.

As an all-round opponent of the arms trade, supporting companies like this with public contracts alarms me enough already. However, the really worrying thing is the fact that the information being collected in the next census – including new questions on sources of income and place of birth (to help monitor immigration) – would be ideal fodder for the kind of anti-terror analyses being carried out by Lockheed, and could lead to a faraway database identifying thousands of us as potential ‘threats’.

Precisely this kind of analysis was run by NASA in 2001, using 5 million records from the US census which were provided by the Census Bureau itself, when it was trying to develop a terrorist screening system for airline passengers. This prompted protests by the American Civil Liberties Union, who told the Washington Times the release of census data to NASA was “a major breach of trust.”

I’m sure the government’s contract with Lockheed will include a promise not to take the data and use it for these purposes. But, in an age when even my keyring can hold two gigabytes of data, I think it will take a lot more than that to convince people their details will be safe. Not using an American arms company to run the census would be a start.

This is an important point. A fundamental tenet of census-taking is that the people filling in the forms should trust that they are doing so in privacy in order that they will give accurate information. Involving a company with the dubious connections of Lockheed Martin could easily undermine public confidence, and undermine the worth of the information collected.

Before 2011, we aim to do a lot to raise awareness of this issue. A similar campaign in Canada by privacy groups and progressive MPs before their 2006 census (in which Lockheed Martin was also involved) didn’t get the company replaced, but did help persuade Statistics Canada to change the contract to ensure that company employees only handled software and hardware and didn’t have access to the actual census data. The campaign also helped create a government task force specifically charged with monitoring privacy issues around the census.

For now, Greens in the five areas covered by this week’s trial run (Camden, Bath and East Somerset, Carmarthenshire, Stoke on Trent and Liverpool) are calling on people to boycott the test by not filling in their forms. Unlike the eventual census – where there is a legal obligation to take part – the test is voluntary and widespread non-participation would send a signal to the government that we want more controls on who processes information about us.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

There's just one future for the left: Jeremy Corbyn

Labour's new leader is redefining Labour for the 21st century, argues Liam Young. 

The politics of the resurgent left comes down to one simple maxim: people are sick and tired of establishment politics. When one makes this statement it is usually met with some form of disapproval. But it is important to realise that there are two different types of people that you have this conversation with.

First there are the people I surround myself with in a professional environment: political types. Then there are the people I surround myself with socially: normal people.

Unsurprisingly the second category is larger than the first and it is also more important. We may sit on high horses on Twitter or Facebook and across a multitude of different media outlets saying what we think and how important what we think is, but in reality few outside of the bubble could care less.

People who support Jeremy Corbyn share articles that support Jeremy Corbyn - such as my own. People who want to discredit Jeremy Corbyn share articles that discredit Jeremy Corbyn - like none of my own. It is entirely unsurprising right? But outside of this bubble rests the future of the left. Normal people who talk about politics for perhaps five minutes a day are the people we need to be talking to, and I genuinely believe that Labour is starting to do just that.

People know that our economy is rigged and it is not just the "croissant eating London cosmopolitans" who know this. It is the self-employed tradesman who has zero protection should he have to take time off work if he becomes ill. It is the small business owner who sees multi-national corporations get away with paying a tiny fraction of the tax he or she has to pay. And yes, it is the single mother on benefits who is lambasted in the street without any consideration for the reasons she is in the position she is in. And it is the refugee being forced to work for less than the minimum wage by an exploitative employer who keeps them in line with the fear of deportation. 

The odds are stacked against all normal people, whether on a zero hours contract or working sixty hours a week. Labour has to make the argument from the left that is inclusive of all. It certainly isn’t an easy task. But we start by acknowledging the fact that most people do not want to talk left or right – most people do not even know what this actually means. Real people want to talk about values and principles: they want to see a vision for the future that works for them and their family. People do not want to talk about the politics that we have established today. They do not want personality politics, sharp suits or revelations on the front of newspapers. This may excite the bubble but people with busy lives outside of politics are thoroughly turned off by it. They want solid policy recommendations that they believe will make their lives better.

People have had enough of the same old, of the system working against them and then being told that it is within their interest to simply go along with it.  It is our human nature to seek to improve, to develop. At the last election Labour failed to offer a vision of future to the electorate and there was no blueprint that helped people to understand what they could achieve under a Labour government. In the states, Bernie Sanders is right to say that we need a political revolution. Here at home we've certainly had a small one of our own, embodying the disenchantment with our established political discourse. The same-old will win us nothing and that is why I am firmly behind Jeremy Corbyn’s vision of a new politics – the future of the left rests within it. 

Liam Young is a commentator for the IndependentNew Statesman, Mirror and others.