No to the database state
Information collection and barriers to the free movement of people are far from legitimate, writes Ted North
Over recent weeks many woolly-eyed liberal types seem to have discovered that her majesty’s police force is not the shining beacon of civilisation they had long taken it for. The quasi-mythical ‘bobby on the beat’ has developed a blemish.
Of course, to Marxists, police violence - which may be manifested as outright brutality according to circumstances - is inherent in its function as part of the armed wing of the state; a repressive apparatus to ensure the rule of the bourgeoisie over the majority proletariat. As shocking at the incidents at the G20 protests may be, they are nothing exceptional in the long history of police crimes.
The scandal largely reflects the proliferation of the use of cameras, and the rapidity with which pictures and videos are spread over the internet. This makes it harder for pro-establishment liberals to ignore blatant abuse. But, whilst many people will agree the cops weren’t very pleasant on April 1, they tend to seek out rotten apples, combined with failures of method. This is of course paralleled by the state’s constant attempts to find scapegoats as low down the chain as possible if it faces serious criticism.
Therefore the focus is on ‘incidents’, not on patterns, processes and political context. Such a perspective is lubricated by the liberal conception of the state as ‘class-neutral’, which can be wielded by whoever the people elect - a view which history itself has disproved through examples too numerous to mention.
The British state has hundreds of years of practice in controlling dissent and rebellion. We have every reason to believe that any escalation of the class struggle will be closely followed by the state racking up its repressive powers.
This is the context in which we must see the development of what has been termed the ‘database state’. While at present the dangers of this development may seem relatively benign, in the long run they represent a potentially devastating source of unaccountable power. This goes much deeper than concerns about privacy - although these are, of course, very real factors.
In 2006 information commissioner Richard Thomas declared that we had woken up in a surveillance society; it was just two years after he warned we were sleepwalking into one.1 A series of reports - O’Donnell, Poynter, Burton, Thomas-Walport, not to mention that of the Independent Police Complaints Commission - have been strongly critical of the swelling database state. Yet the government shows no sign of halting the trend, let alone reversing it. And why would it unless it were forced?
The key catalyst which eventually produced the Database state report by the Joseph Rowntree Trust was the loss of disks containing the entire child benefit database in October 2007. In that case the state found its scapegoat in the person of the head of revenue and customs, who was forced to resign. Similar cases have followed in quick and predictable succession.
The Rowntree Trust, founded by rich businessman and Quaker Joseph Rowntree, exists to give money to projects which “promote democratic reform, civil liberties and social justice”. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Of course, who you think is promoting “social justice” - and is therefore deserving of a chunk of Rowntree’s £30 million - depends on your understanding of the concept. Its long-term financing of the Liberal Democrats gives some indication of how Rowntree understands it.
The authors of the report are specialists in ‘information’, academics from Oxford, Cambridge and University College London, with a couple of ‘professionals’ thrown in.
This report is an attempt to explore the nature of existing major databases. The ever expanding web has been no secret, yet, unsurprisingly, there has been little transparency in their development.
Of the 46 databases assessed - out of many thousands in existence - just six are given the ‘green light’ (ie, are “effective, proportionate and necessary”). In contrast, 25% are described as “almost certainly illegal under human rights or data protection law” (‘red’), whilst more than 50% have “significant problems” (p4).2
The centralisation of most of these databases stands in contrast to most other ‘developed’ countries, where, for example, healthcare and social service records are generally held locally. The interlinking and overlapping British system gives an ever greater number of state employees access to sensitive personal information.
Indeed things have got to the point where on average one civil servant from revenue and customs, the department for work and pensions or the home office is being disciplined for “breaches of data protection requirements” every working day.3 In other words, it is clearly a systemic problem.
Aside from the significant risks of discrimination, invasion of privacy and stigmatisation, there are numerous other problems. The vast cost is one. The British state currently spends more than £16 billion every year on IT, and plans to increase this to at least £20 billion a year over the next period. And it is not merely the expense that grates: these projects are also dreadfully wasteful. Only something like 30% of such IT projects succeed in their aims (p4).
The role of private companies is also significant and disturbing. For instance, British Telecom operates the Population Demographic Service, Summary Care Record and Secondary Use Service for the NHS. Likewise there are plans to link the Automatic Number Plate Recognition System in to cameras on garage forecourts.
But the prize for dodgy interactions with the private sector must go to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. The DVLA is quite happy to sell drivers personal information to anyone who requests it. In 2007 it even sold such data to two men serving prison sentences for extortion against motorists!4 Given this, one wonders why the Rowntree report gives the DVLA an ‘amber’, rather than ‘red’, classification.
Topping the list of the ‘red’ systems is the national DNA database, which contains the records of hundreds of thousands of people, including nearly 40,000 children, most of whom have not committed any offence.5 Others in this category include the National Identity Register (the ID card scheme), ContactPoint (a comprehensive database of all children in England), the Detailed Care Record and Secondary Uses Service of the NHS.
Then there is the Onset database - a home office project whose aim is predicting which children will become future criminals! As for the Interception Modernisation Programme, it aims for a comprehensive tracking and monitoring system - it will not merely include a record of all phone calls and emails, but the physical location of mobile phones at a given time. Not to implement such a system would, according to transport secretary Geoff Hoon, amount to “a licence to terrorists to kill people”.6
In 2007 more than 500,000 requests to access communications information were made by the various bodies which have access to it.7 And do not imagine that you are safe using programmes like Skype.
The 29 ‘amber’ databases vary from those which are “simply unnecessary”, such as the comprehensive National Childhood Obesity Database, to those like the NHS Summary Care Record, which is still in development, but is a potential addition to the ‘red’ category. The latter scheme has been completed in Scotland, and already a doctor is facing criminal charges for collating the details of various celebrities. Also early last month the records of Gordon Brown and Alex Salmond were accessed improperly.
The minority of ‘green’ systems are include the National Fingerprint Database and TV Licensing database.
In defence of oppression
Supporters of the various databasing systems claim all sorts of benefits come with the governments schemes. Let us explore some of these usually unreferenced claims.
Take the controversial national DNA database. Despite the audit commission (itself rated ‘red’ in the Rowntree report) warning in 2000 that tens of thousands of samples taken from innocent people were being held illegally, the House of Lords decided it was acceptable to use these as evidence in trials.
The database continued to swell, until in December 2008 the European Court of Human Rights announced that Britain’s actions violated the European Convention on Human Rights.
Anyway, the police and politicians who defend the need for millions of genetic samples to be stored argue that doing so helps combat crime. Lurid examples of rape and murder can be wheeled out. But, looking beyond the headlines, such claims are not supported by the evidence. Although recent years have seen the database swell rapidly, the number of crimes solved using genetic evidence has remained stable at approximately one in 300, or 0.34-0.36% (p23). In 2007 this even fell somewhat.8
Similar tough-sounding pronouncements are made on the necessity of having more than four million CCTV cameras. And yet a 2005 home office report shows that, while their presence may reduce crime in areas such as car parks somewhat, they are on the whole ineffective.9
Liberalism v Marxism
Whilst we may agree with many of the criticisms contained in the Rowntree report, we nevertheless approach things from a very different perspective.
At the most obvious level this is reflected in a rather different conception of the state. The authors of the report stress their concern about the proliferation of databases precisely because they “alienate the citizen from the state” (p4) and turn people against the forces of law and order.
The report claims the state has a dual character: on the one hand it “formalises our social compassion”, whilst on the other it has the role of the “enforcing state” (p8). The authors moan that the database state “appears to fuse these two together”, thus making people “feel like a suspect or recidivist: fingerprinted, scanned and their number plates recorded, as they travel around the country” (p9).
The report’s timid suggestions on how things can be improved boil down to such ‘radical’ steps as making the chief information officer a permanent secretary (p7).
By contrast, we communists would argue that the bourgeois state is by its very essence something separate from and above society - a repressive apparatus whose coincidental progressive features are usually the result of struggle from below.
The report’s mixture of pseudo-progressive liberal waffle and concern to defend the establishment is also reflected in, amongst other statements, its pronouncements on immigration policy. Apparently the UK Border Agency mixes “scaremongering ‘war on terror’ tactics with legitimate immigration control mechanisms” (p24). For communists increasingly high-tech barriers to the free movement of people are far from “legitimate”. Capital generally flows freely across national borders, whilst people face all sorts of restrictions. And yet, time and again, the supposedly revolutionary left puts to one side demands for open borders, along with democratic demands in general, because left ‘common sense’ is infected with economistic and nationalistic forms of opportunism.
We must reassert the centrality of democratic questions in the communist programme for the emancipation of the working class, and therefore of all humanity, and consistently champion such questions in a way that the Rowntree Trust, Liberty, the Liberal Democrats and ‘libertarian’ Tories like David Davis will not do.
As the CPGB’s Draft programme puts it, “even when bourgeois rule is masked in a democratic form, state terror is always held in reserve”.10 In the long run, the ever growing web of detailed information is a weapon in the hands of the bourgeoisie every bit as dangerous as the SA-80 assault rifle and the phosphorus grenade.
1. See news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/02_11_06_surveillance.pdf
2. www.jrrt.org.uk/uploads/Database%20State.pdf The focus is on England, and because of the devolution of healthcare, etc there is some variation elsewhere. Nevertheless, the essence of the database state applies across the UK. All page references are to this report unless otherwise stated.
3. The Daily Telegraph November 3 2008.
4. Mail on Sunday February 12 2007.
5. See ‘Our rights are not disposable’ Weekly Worker December 11 2008.
8. The Daily Telegraph November 10 2008.