Taking liberties?

– British Home Secretary Charles Clarke

– Benjamin Franklin

It’s always a difficult balance to maintain; even taking the foreign policy angle out for a moment, how do you strike a balance between civil obedience and civil liberty? Is it even possible?

Security forces (and I include the police in amongst this group) would ideally like to know where everyone is, what everyone is doing, writing, thinking, saying, driving, drinking smoking etc. Only with more information about our so-called private lives can they deter, detect, solve and prevent crimes against the law-abiding masses.

Taking the extreme view of the other side, the civil libertarian seems to want a society where everyone is trusted to do what’s right without any checking or controls. This is not just on a personal level, but aggregates up to a national level where all foreign countries should be left alone except a stern letter in the case of any moral transgressions.

Sure, both are at extremes of the spectrum, but it illustrates the point. A comment I often hear is “I’ve got nothing to hide, so why should I fear phone-tapping/ID Cards/CCTV cameras/stop & search”. Which is fair enough for the law abiding, but therein lies the problem. Criminals (and I’m not talking drunken yobs or kids dealing dope) will tend to find ways to circumvent such restrictions; Handgun ban? Numbers of illegal owned handguns and deaths by firearms has risen. ID Cards? Probably fakeable eventually. Email retention? Encryption. In other words these restrictions of civil liberties, of personal privacy, don’t actually affect the criminals that are allegedly the reason for the, generally knee-jerk, legislation.

And then we have my next beef. I’ve heard people say “I don’t have a problem with the government having all my personal details, medical records, phone call transcripts, emails, vehicle movements.” Nice idea, and actually much more idealistic, or certainly blue-eyed, than the civil libertarian. What do they mean when they say ‘the government’? It’s not as if Tony Blair himself was looking after our information. A whole host of civil servants of various departments, IT contractors and their foreign outsourced minions, illegal immigrant cleaning staff, auditors and who knows what else. And that’s while we have a variety of disparate systems that don’t really talk to each other; there is a desire in government, linked with the ID card legislation, to combine identity specific data into one central database.

I wasn’t sure where I’d come out at the end of this post, but I think it’s fairly clear where I’ve landed. With restraints. I still believe that a court order should be necessary for information on a private citizen to be accessed for the purposes of investigation. For that to actually work, the information has to be collated in advance, otherwise will most likely be too late.

Will we one day get to enjoy a society which has balanced it’s desires for civil obedience and civil liberty? I doubt it. Taking all the figures into account, we in Britain, nay the developed western world as a whole, have never lived safer, longer, more healthy lives. But show us a picture of a drunken youth hurling a stone, tell us two people in Birmingham got shot or whatever and suddenly Middle England is up in arms wailing “ASBO! Ban something! Or someone! Have all my personal details to avoid a statistically irrelevant amount of benefit fraud!”

Then of course there is the threat of Muslim extremists who “hate us for our freedom”. To stop them destroying our very fabric of society we are having more and more restrictive legislation applied. I wonder how we ever coped with the IRA, who actually managed to kill many more people in Britain than some alleged Al Qaeda offshoot.

But one thing is for sure, if they do “hate us for our freedom” they won’t have much to worry about for much longer.