The Socialist 29 November 2007 |
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Mass scrutiny needed to protect our rights and privacy
"A MASS movement is needed to tackle the state's snoopers" read a headline in the Observer newspaper. The author was talking about a movement like the Countryside Alliance, but nevertheless, the sense of alarm in this headline is necessary. It was prompted by the disclosure of two lost discs holding the personal information of 25 million child benefit recipients. They were being sent from HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) in Tyne and Wear to the National Audit Office (NAO) in London, using private couriers.
Unbelievably the discs were not even sent using recorded or registered delivery. It was also revealed from leaked emails that in order to save money, information that had not been asked for, such as bank account details, was not filtered out. The personal information of 25 million people is still missing and meek words from the government that no-one need worry because they believe 'the discs are still on government property' are no consolation.
This fiasco has exposed the effect of civil service cuts. The government tried to blame an individual worker, but this security breach was due to cuts (see article below) and government disregard for the privacy of ordinary people. No HMRC worker should be scapegoated.
This scandal has also raised the lid on how New Labour is obsessed with holding as much personal detail on people as possible and controlling that information through centralised database systems. They are unable to reassure people on how information is gathered, who is responsible for the databases, who has access to them and how they are secured.
The government claims it is more cost-effective to hold data in this way and that it frees staff working in public services to concentrate on the front line.
This is the so-called rationale behind the national NHS database which has cost millions of pounds so far and will eventually contain the personal details of 50 million people. Currently there are 300,000 people who are eligible to access it! GPs in Bolton, where the first use of the database is in operation, are up in arms and two thirds of them have said they do not want all hospital staff to have the full details of their patients.
Confidentiality at risk
This largescale access to, and less secure way of storing personal health details could be very serious if computers are hacked into or information is leaked, particularly because of the discrimination in our society for those with mental health problems, HIV and other illnesses. Lives could be wrecked if confidentiality is breached.
Losing the child benefit discs has rightly raised a furore about ID cards. The scheme will cost anything between £5.6 billion and £12 billion to implement. By 2010 all UK passport applicants will be issued with biometric ID cards, at an estimated cost of £300 per applicant! The government tells us they will help in the fight against terrorism. But ID cards in Spain did not prevent the Madrid bombings. In Northern Ireland there were checkpoints and security ID checks for 30 years yet these measures did not stop the IRA's campaign; they only further alienated the catholic population.
And questions are now being raised about who will control and secure the database that will support the ID card scheme. It appears that a private company will be used, which effectively means this government will be privatising our privacy. Who will hold the private business to account, control how the data is used and who sees it?
It is not just left organisations that are ringing alarm bells. Dame Shirley Williams has called for a revolt on the issue of ID cards and said people are "entitled to refuse their co-operation, using non-violent means".
However, our personal details being centrally collected and stored by an inefficient cost-cutting and privatising government that cannot be trusted is an essential issue for the trade unions and working-class movement.
Issues of identity fraud, stealing from bank accounts and privacy affect us all. There have been 14 lapses in major government IT projects in the last two years.
Under capitalism, these centralised IT database systems are mainly about saving money and they give the state more power to control us and interfere in our private lives. We are already the most monitored population in western Europe, through the use of CCTV and other surveillance. In the New Year the home office will by statutory instrument, ie not through parliament, make a new law that will give the police and security services access to all details of travel within the UK (Observer 25.11.07).
There is also the issue of snooping on trade union and socialist activists. Past surveillance of the left has been well documented. ID cards and other information about people can be used by the state against those they deem a threat or nuisance due to trade union or campaigning activity.
A mass campaign against attacks on our democratic rights is necessary, led by trade unions and working-class communities. New Labour's plan for ID cards and their entire onslaught on democratic rights and civil liberties must be stopped. The government and its big business allies cannot be trusted with our personal data. Mass scrutiny is needed of their database procedures.
Through trade unions, community organisations, civil rights campaigns and other grassroots bodies, ordinary people need democratic control over the workings of the state, to safeguard the interests of us all.