The Convention on Modern Liberty was held on 28 February at the Logan Hall, Institute of Education, London, with peripheral meetings around the county. It was a sell-out ticket event, with around 900 people attending, and it was an impressive and educational day. The idea and the organising drive came from Henry Porter (Observer) and Anthony Barnett (openDemocracy); its theme was “A call to all concerned with attacks on our fundamental rights and freedoms under pressure from counter-terrorism, financial break down and the database state”.
The list of speakers was impressive: Lord Bingham, Sir Ken Macdonald QC, Helena Kennedy QC, Philip Pullman, Dominic Grieve MP, Will Hutton, David Davis MP. There were twenty two breakout sessions over the day, two plenary sessions and three keynote addresses. It was busy, well organised yet good humoured – what a pleasure to be at a public event that wasn’t controlled and managed to death.
What was notable about the plenary sessions was the common concern across a wide spectrum of professional, academic and political positions – the politics went very wide, and were perhaps incompatible, but that didn’t seem to matter on the day.
There were two breakout sessions specifically on data protection issues, the first on Business and Privacy, sponsored by the Open Rights Group; and the second on the Database State, sponsored by NO2ID and the Centre for Policy Studies.
What I took from them was – that while there seem to be privacy solutions to interacting with business online (at least in development if not in current use), which are both effective for business and minimise the privacy exposure, there is nothing remotely similar on offer for the interactions with the state. In fact quite the opposite. Why isn’t government interested in a model which would allow citizens to access the services they need without a huge range of civil servants and public authorities having access to all their personal data?
No2ID have made a strong case that the database state includes both the transformational government programme (better public service delivery) and the other programmes, mainly law and order matters including the proposed communications data base, and of course the ID card. I have made a running distinction between the soft and hard state, the soft state being the area of transformational government (in effect, the welfare state), and the hard state being the coercive law and order and national security state. I’m not sure they can be talked about in the same breath, as if getting free meals to eligible schoolchildren is the same thing as getting round a terrorist cell; but there is an issue as to whether the data that is collected by the soft state is made available to the hard state – certainly a possibility under the new data sharing proposals.
There should be a wall between the two states, which would make it easier to manage the transformational government programme with privacy efficient solutions (a trusted third party mediating data relations between state and citizens?). The ID card, of course, is a crucial connector between the soft and hard state.
We must also wonder how a Labour Government which has implemented since 1997 a very significant programme of Constitutional Reform, including devolved government in Wales and Scotland, Freedom of Information, Human Rights, a Supreme Court, and with a clear commitment to improving democracy in the UK, is now seen (and convincingly seen) as authoritarian, addicted to the surveillance of citizens, and the enemy of democracy? It is quite astonishing.