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Hanging on to civil liberties

Technology allows corporations and governments to store huge amounts of our personal data – but it a

Just a decade ago the impact of technology on civil liberties was mostly the concern of geeks who worried about distant plans for government super-databases or the terms and conditions of Microsoft products.

But news in April of the angry residents of Broughton, a village in Cambridgeshire, who chased away a Google Street View car as its driver tried to photograph their homes, is just the latest sign that the collision between technological advances and civil liberties has consumed the national consciousness like a small itch that turns into an enormous rash overnight. It’s become a question you can’t avoid, however hard you try.

Technology has become a curse as well as a boon to our society. It has sparked a low-level war between citizens on one side, and governments and corporations on the other. Facebook, the now ubiquitous social networking website, is a good example.

Its first major challenge came when a news feed was introduced to the user’s home page, detailing the updates that friends had made to their profiles. It may now be widely accepted that when our Facebook friends upload new pictures or write about what they watched last night on television we will know about it, but the feature initially sparked a backlash that nearly brought the site to its knees.

Since then Facebook has twice been forced into humiliating climbdowns when it experimented with user information: once when it introduced a system called Beacon that informed friends of one another’s online purchases, and again when it changed its terms and conditions to claim unprecedented ownership over all the data that was uploaded to its servers. Significantly, it wasn’t media outrage that forced the website to backtrack but the expression of anger by its own users, who joined protest groups in large numbers on the website itself.

These incidents encapsulate the tension as our usage of technology accelerates. But the same computing tools that give companies and governments increasing access to our information also afford us the ability to challenge them. Since 1997 the UK government has been lured into dreams of electric sheep, thanks to the influence of corporate lobbyists, and has increasingly embraced all-encompassing IT projects. Most of these have ended in tears, but the appetite for tracking, storing and mining our data remains strong. It recently announced plans to store details from every text message, email and browsing session in and out of the UK, while also requesting that social networks such as Facebook and MySpace hold information about users for over a year in case it was needed by the security services.

Since computing power has grown by leaps and bounds, it is much easier to build super-databases and connect them up, using complex algorithms to mine the data. Increasing concern over these plans has also led to online campaigns. No2ID, now a national grass-roots campaign that was popularised through email and blogs, regularly exposes government failure over databases, as well as highlighting its plans to launch a national ID card scheme.

No2ID’s national co-ordinator, Phil Booth, believes that we should be allowed meaningful control of our own information and wants to see a reshaping of how privacy is viewed by society. “Information security (looking after the bits) is not data protection (rules on passing details around) is not privacy (the effect it has on people). It might help if governments and companies got the first two right – too often they do not – but it would not guarantee privacy. For that you’d need respect for people’s data in the way the law recognises ‘ownership’ of your own body,” he says.

But many ordinary people do not realise just how much information is being stored about them. The technological complexities have allowed the government in effect to say, “Trust us, we’re here to protect you,” without having the full fail-safe systems in place.

Furthermore, the “database state” has become a fully fledged “database economy”. Corporations have huge financial stakes in perpetuating this state of affairs, whether through government contracts or gathering information themselves. The Tesco Clubcard and Google search history are essentially giant, lucrative data-mining operations.

But all is not lost. The huge success of the first ever Convention on Modern Liberty in February, initially promoted entirely through blogs and social networks, illustrates a growing unease among Britons at how their personal privacy is being treated. It also offers optimistic signs that the left hasn’t entirely abandoned the civil liberties agenda for the Lib Dems or liberal Tories to claim ownership over.

Its co-organiser Anthony Barnett, who was also instrumental in launching Charter 88, says: “For the first time direct democracy and effective, time-efficient participation can be developed to replace the centralised control-and-command state of the 20th century.

New technology is thus creating a great battle between a modern liberty and a new servitude.” He admits it will be a close battle. However, the impact of footage of the police taken during the G20 protests is testament to technology’s ability to empower ordinary people.

Growing numbers of people are using blogs to share information and collaborate in attempts to track government legislation and action. At a bloggers’ summit I hosted during the Convention on Modern Liberty, many offered examples of how software tools were helping them to extract information from government departments or work with others to launch small- and large-scale online campaigns.

A new generation of mini-activists is being created – and governments and corporations ignore them at their own peril.

Sunny Hundal is editor of the centre-left blog Liberal Conspiracy

Sunny Hundal is editor of Liberal Conspiracy.

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Big Brother