Informed decisions

The government may at last be facing up to the challenges of the digital age

"On Liberty", the Prime Minister's speech to an audience at the University of Westminster at the end of October, included the striking words: "This is the century of information." That day, Gordon Brown announced a raft of reviews and consultations aimed, on the one hand, at making government more open, and on the other, at ensuring that the private lives of individuals are not unduly interfered with in the course of data-gathering and data-sharing by private and public bodies.

The first set of reviews - one about the 30-year rule on historic public records and another on the expansion of Freedom of Information legislation to cover all organisations that perform public functions - looks like a straightforward win for the open society. That's coupled with the ongoing Office of Fair Trading review of the commercial use of public sector information. It looks like a revolution in openness.

What will arise from the Information Commissioner's review of the way private information about individuals can both be shared and protected is less certain. Brown makes clear that absolute freedom, the "leave me alone" manifesto of American libertarianism, is not his kind of liberty. Instead, the right to privacy must be tempered by individuals' obligations to civil society, and the state's obligation to help people "realise their true potential".

What this means, in practice, is sharing information, both to ensure better public services and to fight crime. Brown is right to acknowledge the need for "a new and imaginative approach to accountability, and to winning people's trust in the ways in which information is held and used". According to the Information Commissioner's latest annual report, the public's awareness of its data protection rights has risen to 82 per cent.

Yet to what extent is the government prepared to exercise its imagination on privacy safeguards? You can see, reading between the lines of Brown's speech, that safeguards are likely to be realised through regulatory means - no bad thing, and certainly the Information Commissioner's Office could do with a few more resources and powers, as this column has observed on a number of occasions. But, for example, the spectral "technology review" of ID cards, announced by the Guardian at the beginning of this month, then semi-denied by No 10 a day later, momentarily raised hopes among tech-minded folk that the government might be listening to their concerns about the way identity cards have been conceived.

We should welcome Brown's enthusiasm. In expressing it, he has lifted the lid on the paradox that digital civil liberties campaigners have been grappling with for years: if "information wants to be free", can we pick and choose between openness and privacy?

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, China