Risible Reversions – The Conservatives on the Surveillance State.

It seems to me that these proposals ( see my previous post for details) have to be considered from the point of view of politics and doctrine rather than what they say about data protection – the latter is largely subordinate to the former, in my view. “Reversing the Rise” is the best euphemism for Cuts we’ve had so far; only now everyone is OK with the Cut word. But what are the reasons for the cuts?

We have two types of Conservatism on display (and not only here). There is the small state, Thatcherite, tendency, and the modernising tendency. For the small state, public sector disliking, deregulating tendency, the Database State is a wonderful target, because it is a good example of the big regulatory state, and because it can be attacked for that reason but from behind the cover of a big tent privacy alliance.

It is also notable that the small state tendency has promised to police Government on data protection matters (and others too) when office is achieved. One has a sense here of the prospective government separating itself from the organs of the state, and relying on the recent upheavals in parliament and general political malaise to give this separation and distaste a positive gloss. The (new) government will hold the government (itself?) to account, as these proposals have it.

So the Information Commissioner might have reason to be cautious about the proposals to increase the powers of his office, because it looks as if the Conservatives want to use his office as part of their “reversing” the Big State, and not because they take data protection and privacy seriously. Why does a deregulatory party want more regulation from the ICO?

The small state tendency is more visible in the position on Transformational Government, which is seen exclusively as an attempt to increase the power and range of the State. In fact, it was and is a programme about modernising the public services. There is almost no sense in the Conservative proposals that the public services must be modernised and that personal data use and sharing is crucial to that process – even if you don’t agree with the Government’s current approach.

The Conservatives have to modernise the public sector too, and that must involve information sharing. But I don’t get a sense of two different versions of the modernised ICT enabled state, the Government’s and the Conservatives. The Torys haven’t got, as far as I can see, a developed version of that State. The modernising tendency, where it ought to come from, sounds windy and vague, – holding data on trust, people controlling their own data, dispersing power from the centre, and so on. And is this making the State bigger or smaller ?

Admittedly there are commitments to the privacy interests of the data subject, but again I don’t get a sense of the privacy interests of a connected contemporary person, and rather more of a free, autonomous individual who the digital information state is interfering with. And while I’m not wholly unsympathetic to that, there is a need for a picture of how the information relationships between this type of autonomous individual and the 21st Century state can be conducted.

If the Conservatives really do want to protect privacy in the 21st Century, and not the 20th, we need to see much more of the modernising tendency.

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