Who is watching the watchmen?

Today, British
MPs approved
the government’s highly controversial plan to extend
pre-charge detention of suspects to 42 days.
This proposal initiated a discussion, though unfortunately still
fairly sparse, on
Britain’ s
headlong way towards a surveillance state (see for example this editorial
in the Guardian).

 Technologies that allow the state to monitor aspects
of private life are not in the realm of science fiction anymore. This is
highlighted by the widespread
of network monitoring and data mining suites, which are readily
available from major international companies involved in the standardization of
processes ensuring the lawfulness of the
monitoring. Emerging technologies like nanotech might significantly enhance
these existing possibilities and threats to privacy.

Britain holds
many world records when it comes to privacy: It is market leader in surveillance cameras (almost a quarter
of all CCTV cameras in the world can be found on this small island), the ContactPoint
gathers information on under-18s, the national
DNA database
already holds genetic information on 5.2% of the British
population – many innocent of any crime – and the Nectar card scheme records the shopping habits of half of the
British households. Given this negative records and Britain’s longstanding and
often praised tradition of liberty and its citizens’ proverbial sense for
privacy, it is rather surprising that there is so little discussion about which
aspects of the citizen’s life count as private.

Two issues have
to be separated here: Collecting private date in accordance with the person
under consideration as done by many Nectar or other loyalty card schemes, and
holding and gathering personal information without the consent of person,
mainly by the state. The ethical issues regarding the former seem less
delicate. Here, mainly deficient information is to be blamed, as many consumers
do not know which personal information is gathered and how it is processed. The
informed consent as it is practiced within medicine might provide an
improvement for better protection of the privacy and thus the rights of the

The latter
issue, data collection by the state without consent, is more problematic. With
reference to the risk of terrorist attacks, many governments seek to justify
curtailing citizen’s liberty. Mostly, they do so fairly unmolested by media and
public. The 42-day law is a welcome exception here. If addressed at all, the
issue of public privacy and its protection is framed in terms of a cost-benefit
analysis: Privacy is seen as a valuable good that, to some extent, has to be
traded off against safety concerns.

 This is indeed
an important issue that captures important aspects of the dilemma faced by governments
and individuals. However, there is more to it. Curtailing the citizens’ privacy
always touches on the question on the legitimacy of the state – why and for
what do we need governmental rule? The question on goals of political rule have
been wantonly neglected for many years, at least since the fall of the Soviet
regime. But in order to determine how to deal with conflicts where privacy is
at issue, we clearly need to revive this discussion.

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One Response to Who is watching the watchmen?

  • James says:

    Thanks for this post. This revived discussion needs to be action very quickly as we are being more and more dominated by the second. We are born with “human” rights. We are made citizens and given “civilian” rights – what is given can be taken away. The only way to take our human rights is to terminate us, and it’s being done.


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