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Thursday, 18 March 2010

Now we're all at it... especially the good guys...

It's not just the German government who are using illegally acquired data to root out tax evaders - the latest revelation is that both the French and the UK Government are doing it to. A report from the Sunday Times, available online here, has revealed much more detail - and in particular that HMRC in the UK is very enthusiastic about getting hold of this illegally acquired data. A senior tax official is quoted as saying "It’s fair to say that the prospect of getting hold of this information has generated some excitement here."

The whole thing raises a lot of issues - some of which I mentioned in my post of 7th March - but the German, French and UK governments are all seemingly happy to do it, and at least so far there seems to be very little resistance or outcry about their tactics. The ends justify the means, perhaps. Personally, I don't think so, and an experience I had in the classes I teach (Information Technology & the Law) suggested to me why. The class was about surveillance in the digital environment, and we were discussing the nature of enhanced CCTV, and how it, combined with information from systems like Oyster Cards, could allow coordinated tracking of individuals. I teach three classes, with a mix of different individuals with very different backgrounds. In the first class, the reaction to this kind of tracking could be described as general interest, but nothing more. In the second, it might even be described as enthusiastic - with some agreement with the view of a Police CCTV Liaison Officer that "The cameras are there to help the police and to protect the community. There is no way anybody should be afraid of them unless they have something to hide."

The third class was different - the first person to speak had a reaction that I hadn't really heard in the first two classes. His immediate response was that he didn't want the government to be able to track him - and when asked why, he almost laughed, because to him it was so obvious. Why was it obvious to him, and not to the others in the previous classes? Because he happened to have experience of living in a country with what is close to an authoritarian regime. People who live in those circumstances are naturally and appropriately more likely to be suspicious and distrustful of government motives.

Here in the 'safe' West, where the governments are suspected much more of incompetence than evil, we don't really seem to care that much about things like this. Right now, we seem to mostly 'trust' our governments, and imagine that they will only use the powers we grant them (or allow them to take for themselves) for good purposes - like catching tax evaders, or tracking terrorists. We rarely imagine that they might end up using them for entirely different purposes, purposes for which we would have much less sympathy. What would it take to make us realise the risks, let alone take them seriously? It would be nice to think that we could do so before they are taken too far. 


  1. This reminded me of something I read the other day about the reasons why e-money has not had the spectacular success predicted for it:

    "The true 'innovation' that will matter is how to advance from a paper $100 bill to a digital $100 bill without losing the anonymity and privacy features of the paper cash. It hasn't been done yet, because governments don't want that innovation. In the meantime, we should reject all digital monies until, at a bare minimum, it can maintain the privacy of a simple paper $100 bill." (

    There seems to be an aspect to anonymity that we value independently of the need to keep our activities secret, and maybe also independently of what is normally protected by the right to privacy, such as family life. But how do you explain that to law enforcement?

  2. It's a very good point - but one that I hope governments and law enforcement will have to take on board in the future. People's desire and need for privacy, their feelings that 'being tracked' isn't something that they want, should be taken more seriously. The whole 'if you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear' argument is flawed - if nothing else, because avoiding 'fear' isn't the only thing that matters. I may not 'fear' anything in particular, but I still don't want to be tracked, and I believe I should have that right - in balance and in proportion of course.

    As for explaining it, I think ultimately that's why I believe in setting out a lot of these kinds of things as 'rights'. That may be a way to get law enforcement and other authorities to take them more seriously.