Big brother is watchingWhen historians look back on New Labour they may conclude that its worst sin was not mendacity or incompetence, but the way it destroyed privacy in this country. We are the most spied-upon society in Europe, with more CCTV cameras (an estimated 4.2 million ) than the rest of the EU combined. We also have the world’s biggest DNA database, containing some 3.6 million profiles – about one in 20 of the population – with 40,000 more being added every month. On top of this, the Government plans to introduce a biometric ID card system linked to a national identity register ; to computerise our medical records and make them available to the police and security services; and to introduce more intrusive questions into the next census about income and sexuality.We are on a dangerous path. The sciences of biometrics , intelligent photography and data processing have all come together at great speed and now have a kind of momentum of their own. The public has gone along with this trend, regarding it as a harmless factor of modern life. But this complacency is misguided. A surveillance society is one that necessarily reduces us all from citizens to subjects. The idea that the innocent have nothing to fear rests on the assumption that official agencies won’t make mistakes. All our data – DNA samples revealing susceptibility to illness; records of shopping habits; bank details – can be exploited by businesses or criminals. Data is a valuable commodity. It should be ours to give away to those we trust, not the state’s to requisition when it sees fit. It’s high time Parliament checked New Labour’s controlling instincts.

In the meantime, the only recourse left to the public is subtle civil disobedience. There’s no need to trash CCTV cameras; we just need to all agree to lie. The next time you are asked for superfluous, intrusive information, invent any old crud . Put down on the ridiculous nationalities form that you come from Rapa Nui; when the census arrives say you are Genderqueer and worship Aquarian Concepts Community Divine New Order Government. Only by swamping them with false information can we confound the data collectors.

You only have to compare the UK to the USA. Americans were up in arms over the White House’s secret wiretapping programme. But if you think that failing to get court warrants to monitor the phone calls of people suspected of contact with al-Qa’edais bad, you should see what goes on in here in the UK. Wire-tapping is far more common and less supervised on this side of the Atlantic -especially in Britain. Police in the UK conduct tens of thousands of wiretaps each year, for which they only need the approval of the home secretary; judges have nothing to do with it. The paradox is that when it comes to consumer information, we guard our privacy much more fiercely than Americans do. While we mostly regard the state as benevolent – unlike Americans, who are ever obsessively vigilant of governmental incursions on individual rights – we are terrified about greedy corporations misusing our personal details. This is despite the fact that European companies can’t legally share most consumer information and cases of identity theft are much less common than in the US. So, feel free to hand over your credit card number willy-nilly, just be careful what you say on the phone.

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