The database tyranny

Labour has persistently ignored expert warnings about its approach to electronic government – but a

"There is a sense in the senior civil service and among politicians that the personal data issue is now career-threatening and toxic.” So observes a recent report into the UK’s “database state”, published by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. Released in late March, it provoked two very different reactions. In nearly every major daily, concerned headlines echoed its findings – that a quarter of state-maintained databases are illegal under European privacy law. But in Westminster, apathy reigned. A junior minister was sent to rubbish the report on the Today programme, ignoring its contents in favour of questioning its provenance and repeating paternal platitudes: that the government’s rampant data-collection activities – unprecedented throughout the world – were intended for good and not evil.

To understand where it started to go wrong, we must go back to 2002. In a speech to the UK e-Summit, the famed tech-illiterate Tony Blair coined a flawed yet persistent cognitive metaphor. Describing a visit to a Huddersfield sheet-metal supplier, he commended its employment of information technology: “Enquiries from customers can now be instantly answered from any of the company’s networked computers . . . It’s given them competitive edge and saved them time and money.” Here was the Blair blueprint for public-service reform – all that was needed was for the state to emulate IT systems deployed on the factory floor.

On deeper reflection, it should have been clear that a system for supplying customers with sheet metal might not scale to a system for delivering social justice. But who was Whitehall to reflect deeply, as Blair’s Labour, commissioning one centralised information management project after another, gave civil servants the power they had always craved? And as for the consultants commissioned to build this stuff, why would they complain? The money on offer, and the high levels of tech-illiteracy among their state clients, no doubt helped them to forget that, in combination, the functionality, scale and security requirements of the projects they were being asked to deliver would be nigh on impossible to meet. It was left to experts like Ross Anderson, whose Foundation of Information Policy Research (FIPR) authored last month’s report, to raise the alarm. And they were routinely ignored.

Fast-forward to November 2007. Anderson is on Newsnight, opposite a junior secretary from the Treasury. It is the day of the announcement that HM Revenue and Customs has lost half the nation’s bank details in the post, and Anderson is methodically indicting the government for brushing aside the warnings of security experts about the centralised, top-down approach they have been taking to electronic government. Listing expert reports on, among other topics, a suite of children’s databases and the NHS central data spine – all ignored – Anderson points out that the government has simply not been interested in the experts’ warnings.

The term “database state” was first coined by the campaigners NO2ID in their quest to communicate that the pointless and intrusive national identity scheme represented far more than just another card in your wallet. It has a strong and powerful meaning to anyone familiar with networked, digital technology that may not be obvious to those of a less technical bent.

Databases are not just lists, nor are they the digital equivalent of paper files. Structured databases enable the “querying” of data along novel lines, permitting machines to mine swaths of information, and from it to produce new information. The database state, therefore, is a machine bureaucracy that is actually run by machines. As such it promises to dehumanise both the public-service front line, and the people who rely on it most.

It is the data insecurity demonstrated by the HMRC debacle, coupled with the new, mechanised discrimination of the database state, that so alarms citizens today. But what is even more alarming is this administration’s refusal to countenance dissent on the issue. This must change. Since the economic crisis, much has been written in these pages about the opportunity the left now has for reinvention. But while that may entail greater intervention in the corporate sectors, intervention in our own private sphere must decrease. Apart from anything else, scrapping the illegal databases identified in the FIPR report will save taxpayers an awful lot of cash.

It may also save society. As the tabloids have reminded us, there is little more humiliating for a politician than to have her partner’s predilection for pay-per-play pornography hung out for public view; the loss of dignity may eventually cost Jacqui Smith her job. But surely she – and we – must realise that it is not only government ministers who value their privacy, their dignity? At every level of society, from the vaulted to the vulnerable, our livelihoods, indeed, for many of us our lives, rely on a social fabric that values the reasonable expectation of privacy as the prerequisite of human dignity, itself the foundation of every other human right.

You cannot fix society with computers. People fix society, if you let them. That means freeing nurses, teachers, social workers – and their clients – from the relentless tyranny of Whitehall’s cravings for ever more information. A benevolent state must have a human face, not an unblinking screen. Technology can help, but only if it is despatched by those at the front line. It is a perverse truth that in an age where the bottom-up, decentralised, so-called “network of ends” that is the internet has demonstrated its primacy, the state continues to deploy digital technology from the top down.

The Liberal Democrats, in setting up their Commission on Privacy and in speaking out about police action during the recent G20 protests, have become the go-to party for action on the continued erosion of civil liberties of which the database state is one part. The Tories, with their promise to scrap the ID card and the controversial children’s database, ContactPoint, will attract many younger voters in the metropolitan liberal belts come the next general election. Labour must shed its fear that the personal data issue is toxic, must wrest control of the debate from Whitehall and must act now. Social justice must not be cast aside in our flight from the tyranny of the machine state.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She sits on the Advisory Council of the Foundation for Information Policy Research

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

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Flu: Everything you need to know

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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