Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/07/30/home_office_shrugs_off_surveillance/

It's official: The Home Office is listening

And will officially ignore anything you say

By Jane Fae Ozimek

Posted in Government, 30th July 2008 11:02 GMT

The last week has seen the appearance of two carefully-modulated Yes Minister-style statements, defending the government’s approach to data and surveillance and explaining why we have nothing to worry about.

The first comes in the form of a podcast by allegedly fictitious government blogging supremo and Technology Outreach Tsar, Sir Bonar Neville Kingdom. In the plummiest of plummy Civil Service tones, he praises national ID as a means to make sure that “everyone gets exactly what they are entitled to – and not a penny more”.

He goes on to explain how the use of ID and single identifiers can lead equally to compassion for the 4-year-old with AIDS, as well as retribution for the 74-year-old widow who attempts to retain her free TV viewing after the death of her partner.

Not to be outdone, the week's second, equally hilarious statement comes from the Home Office and is its official response to the Home Affairs Committee report, A Surveillance Society?.

The original report is pretty fair comment. It calls on government to minimise data collection and consider risks associated with excessive surveillance, and suggests that surveillance should only be extended where it is absolutely necessary.

In a masterpiece of spin, the Home Office response turns each of these points on its head, before asserting that the “government is committed to ensuring that information is gathered to meet a necessary and specific purpose and that it is shared only where required and justified”. Quite.

Of course it's justified...we've said it is

Presumably this is in case anyone believed that stated Government policy was the collection of unnecessary data, and sharing it where sharing was not required.

As it begins, so it goes on. The Home Office paper frequently “notes” the point raised by the Home Affairs Committee. Or in Sir Humphrey-speak: “We’ve heard what you have to say and now we’re going to ignore it.”

In between, there are large disingenuous stretches that can only be designed to mislead, as otherwise they would suggest such a poor grasp of technology that none of us could have any continuing confidence in the Government’s abilities to manage our data.

Take data sharing (again). The Report talks about the development of the Police National Database (PND), which “does not create new operational databases and creates new information only in the sense that undiscovered links will be revealed”.

Well, no. It creates a virtual system – which may well be more cost-effective, and a better use of increasingly sophisticated heuristic technology. But it's still a database.

Eerily, the Home Office report at this point almost precisely echoes Sir Neville-Kingdom’s unctuous rejection of the myth that “All your details will be held on one vast government database”.

As for the claim that no “new information” is created, only “undiscovered links”, we must assume that the author of this report is unaware of the “jigsaw” concept that is central to Official Secrets legislation. This makes it a criminal offence for an individual to take two or more unrelated (and unclassified) pieces of information and put them together to create a conclusion that is “secret”.

Presumably what is good enough for official information is not good enough for personal information.

Of course you can say no...

Another very large timebomb buried in the Home Office report includes the suggestion that “public authorities need to be very careful about relying on consent {for the processing of data}, as the requirement can be complex to apply and it is often difficult to be sure than an individual has genuinely consented”.

Translation: If the buggers won’t agree to let government process their data, remove their right to say no!

There is plenty of fine waffle in support of guidelines, high level reviews and impact assessments – although it is hard to shake the sense that wherever any of these come into conflict with what government wants, they will end up being no obstacle at all.

As the Home Office quite rightly says, it will have no time for “fishing trips” or attempts to use information in new ways to deal with a new issue. Oh no. Data would only be used in this way where an “objective” need is identified.

And on and on and on. Individual rights when it comes to DNA? Victims might not understand. Public concern about how personal communications are intercepted? The Home Office plans not to do less of it, but to “raise awareness” of the benefits such practices can bring.

For a government committed to listening, this is a pretty poor show. Or perhaps not. They have clearly heard the arguments against their approach, but, as Sir Neville-Kingdom puts it, they are “confident they can get {the public} back on-side”.

How? Just keep repeating the same bland reassurance and take no notice of substantive criticism. In time, it will all just fade away. ®