Last week I went to a lunchtime seminar on Regulating Surveillance at the UCL Constitution Unit. The seminar was given by given by Professor Charles Raab and Dr Benjamin Goold, who were the specialist advisers to the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution in its inquiry into Surveillance, now published as Second Report of Session 2008-2009, “Surveillance, Citizens and the State”. The Report is an important contribution to the debate about the State and the collection and uses of information; and provides a significant conceptual armature for further discussions, and understanding of the meaning and application of surveillance techniques. The Government is due to respond to the Report, after which there will be a Lords debate.

Datonomy has already commented on the Rowntree Report on the Database State, and the retreat by the Government on the Information Sharing proposals, and connected themes mentioned in the seminar were Visibility, Transparency and Trust. We have on the one hand a sense that the population is becoming increasingly visible and transparent to both the State and Commercial organisations, because of the capacity to collect, hold and analyse unprecedented amounts of personal data. That is just a shorthand reference, but we also have a kind of counter-surveillance of the State by Citizens through Freedom of Information, and of course the media.

The State wants transparent citizens/customers to deliver better services, but also for crime and security purposes. The Public now know more about Government than ever before, in part because of FoI. On both sides of the State-Citizen relationship there is an unprecedented belief in the value of transparency and visibility, as core values of democracy; but both sides, in their way, are attempting to restrict the impact of visibility, either of FoI on the operations of Government (particularly policy formation), or of data collection and surveillance on private lives.

Trust is the medium in which Transparency must operate, and one of the ironic effects of Transparency (at the moment) is that the more that is visible the less it seems reasonable to Trust. MP’s expenses hasn’t helped. If Government were trusted, the Information Sharing proposals would not have seemed such an enormity. Some of the Government’s proposals (and actions) for the general collection of personal data for Crime and Security purposes make it look as if the State does not trust citizens.

We can be sure that the Transparency Contests are set for a long run in the public arena, and that there will be no shortage of demand for the tickets.

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