Monday, January 15, 2007

Johann Hari has an article in the Independent today defending the UK government's proposed integration of state computer systems to share personal information.

I dispute his thesis on several levels:

Firstly, he treats as equivalent a criminal action committed by the state or by an individual criminal. This to me is plain wrong - as an elector I have vicarious responsibility for a cop who makes his dog cripple a child - I don't have such responsibility for the actions of a random psychopath, paroled or otherwise.

Secondly, he uses rape as an example of why it is acceptable for the state to invade personal privacy to prevent a much worse consequence. Leaving aside the likelihood that circumstances, not identity are at issue in most of the 50,000 unsolved rapes he cites, how desirable is a society where crime is suppressed through individual surveillance?

The widespread deployment (in the UK) of numberplate recognition is likely to allow the police to have a list of all vehicles (and eventually faces) that passed near the site of an offence. Given the pressure to make use of this information, it is likely that before long most people will become "suspects" in several serious offences every year. What will it do for the tolerance of policing once everyone gets a regular knock on the door and a demand to justify their movements?

It is technically possible (and becoming easier) to perform random drug testing on the entire population. Given that drug use is illegal, it would be justified in Johann's logic for the state to try and wipe it out by drug testing the entire population and imposing "rehabilitation" on those that fail. Would this be an acceptable use of state power?

It is an unfortunate fact that a largish minority of the UK (and NZ) population are hardline racists, support radical Islam, physical force (Irish) republicanism or other undesirable ideologies. Should the government monitor all communication and discussion in order to blacklist such people and prevent them working in jobs where they might discriminate against or attack other citizens?

I'd suggest to Johann that just as using state power to try and enforce better government on Iraq turned out to be a bad idea, so using state power to try and coerce the domestic population into better behaviour may be a good idea in theory, but a thoroughly bad one in practice.

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