Not Saussure

March 24, 2007

If you’ve nothing to hide from barmpots, you’ve nothing to fear

Filed under: civil liberties — notsaussure @ 7:45 pm

Somewhat belatedly, I’ve come across a continuing exchange between Longrider, on whose saint-like patience with barmpots I’ve previously commented, and Neil Harding, a Brigton-Regency-Labour-Supporter. Mr Harding’s blog carries the strap-line


which probably comes as some small comfort to his embarrassed comrades, many of whom doubtless wouldn’t want to be associated with some of his ideas (if they are common currency in Brighton, then I’m glad I don’t live there).

Mr Harding wonders ‘how many people at NO2ID have mobile phones’. This is no mere idle curiosity on his part; he writes

For those who are freaked out about the government and their use of new tracking technology (yet they don’t worry about having a bank account, mobile phone, internet etc. placing their most intimate details with unknowns), where is their campaign against this?

‘This,’ if you can’t be bothered to follow the link, is a year-old story in The Guardian about how easy Ben Goldacre, of found it to track his girlfriend’s whereabouts by borrowing her mobile phone and asking a commercial tracking company to trace her movements by GPS, which apparently can easily be done while the phone is turned on. In order so to do he had briefly to have access to her phone, first, in order to reply to the text message they sent her, asking her to agree to be tracked, and then to delete the text so she didn’t know about it.

He thus apparently broke the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, by intercepting and deleting someone else’s text message but possibly not, it would seem, the Data Protection Act since he could have argued he was doing this for ‘domestic purposes’. I don’t know what the position would be if he’d tried doing it to someone else (and I’m rather hoping, if they’re reading this, Arch Rights can tell me, since they know a lot more about privacy laws than do I), and it would seem that the mobile should have — but, worryingly, didn’t — receive regular text messages reminding his girlfriend that her phone was being thus monitored. One sincerely hopes that the companies providing this service — aimed primarily at employers trying to keep track of their mobile staff, though it seems a variant is being offered to anxious parents — have, as a result of the publicity, increased the frequency of the reminder messages they send out.

Be that as it may, Mr Harding’s argument is that, since it’s possible to track mobile phones, admittedly only with the owner’s consent (unless you don’t mind breaking the law), on certain networks (O2, Vodafone, Orange and T-Mobile, apparently, though not Virgin Mobile as yet — I don’t particularly want to link to the companies that offer this electronic snooping), and provided the phone’s turned on, it’s hypocritical of people like NO2ID and Longrider (whom he singles out by name, presumably because he wanted to provoke the patient Mr Longrider) to object to something on the same lines being compulsorily applied to every motorist or every ID card holder in the country.

In other words, they have, he seems to be saying, failed to complain about a minor ill, so it’s hypocritical of them to be upset about a far greater one. This is, I think, the first time I’ve ever heard someone argue that because you failed to make a fuss when someone took an inch, you’re being unreasonable when they take a mile.

But it gets better; in his comments, Mr Harding goes rather further:

Personally I have no problem with the database state and tracking people etc. There are huge benefits to be had if it is done right (and most people who object IMHO are just scared of government and use ridiculous scenarios of big brother and futuristic fascist states [who might arrest 82-year-old men for heckling politicians or stop and search 11 year old girls under anti-terrorism laws , or who might use other laws to prosecute you for reading out the names of the war dead at the Cenotaph; wild, impossible scenarios like that] – they might as well go and live in a cave if they think like that).No, bring it on. I think we should track everyone and put their location on the internet for all to see (this way we can watch the watchers), we should DNA test all babies at birth and then every rapist/murderer/criminal etc would be caught first time (and know they can’t get away with it). I know it sounds horrible that nobody could lie about their location and partake in criminal activity and easily get away with it- but what would be really horrible are all the victims who suffer because we shy away from using available technology that would protect them.

Challenged on this, he expands the point chez Longrider:

But really think about it. It works both ways, you might not be able to get away with a sickie or lie about being with the secretary after work or going to the lap dance club or the pub, or smoking weed with your mates after school – in fact – people would have to face up to their lives and be honest to their nearest and dearest. And best of all it works both ways, so we will know if the boss is on the golf course or the south of Frnace or whatever.I think it would show so many people up as hypocrites we would all become more relaxed. Nobody could pretend to be perfect anymore.

Quite why Mr Harding thinks it’s any of his — or anyone else’s — business what others do in their spare time is beyond me, unless they’re doing something of interest to the police — in which case, the police need a reason to ask you to account for your activities. The assumption — rather battered by successive governments, particularly that of Mr Harding’s party, over recent years, it is true, but still there and still important — is that we’re all innocent until proven guilty rather than that we’re all potential miscreants and criminals who need an eye keeping on us in case we get up to no good.

People forget too easily, I think, that we enjoy a right to privacy (Article 8 of the ECHR, to be precise), along with the right, among other things, to a fair trial, freedom of speech and freedom of religion, and it’s just as important. What’s my business is mine, unless I chose to share it with someone or unless someone has good reason to know it. And the assumption is that they don’t.

This, to my mind, isn’t because we are all paranoid but because we base our society on the important and valuable assumption that we’re by and large decent people who deserve each other’s trust and who don’t need to prove this about ourselves. We recognise that this may not always be the case of everyone, so we consent to being required, in specific situations, to give proof of our bona fides, but we also recognise that there are many busy-bodies, snoops, gossips and the like about, and we protect ourselves from them.

One of the worst things about this government — for, while previous administrations were guilty of this as well, Mr Blair’s lot have gone far further — is the way they’ve corroded public trust. Not just public trust in the government, though their lies and deceptions, but, to an extent, people’s trust in each other by bashing away at this constant monitoring and the mantra of if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear. It’s in some way related to the constant performance monitoring and target-setting that so obsesses HMG, I suppose. They feel they have to monitor the civil servants, to make sure they’re doing their job properly, and this more and more entails monitoring us to make sure that we’re playing our part in meeting targets, by behaving in an appropriate way. This is intrusive and bad enough when private employers do it, but at least then we get paid for it and we’ve got the option of changing jobs if it gets too much.

I suppose in some ways we should be grateful to Mr Harding both laying out for us so clearly the full horrible prospects of this surveillance society and for showing that, contrary to what we might imagine, there are people who actually welcome the prospect with open arms.

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  1. I have to say, my patience does wear a little thin when attempting to reason with the unreasonable. That said, the more reasonable I am, the more likely onlookers will see for themselves just how unreasonable is my protagonist. At least, that’s the theory. ;)

    Comment by Longrider — March 24, 2007 @ 10:09 pm

  2. Neil is a lazy man, as well as a foolish one. He cut and pasted exactly the same comment as on Longrider’s blog into the comments section on my piece about him. Or, to be fair, maybe he just suffers from too limited a vocabulary to paraphrase his own views?

    I have accorded him pride of place in my “Bad, Mad and Merely Misguided” links section. He may be the first person under the list to qualify under more than one heading. Despite strong competition from Terry Kelly, he is the first individual to be so “honoured”.

    I find it hard to believe he’s for real. I worry that he must be adopting these degraded positions from some perverted desire for fame. The Devil’s Kitchen gives him a good going over today, for example. I fear Neil probably enjoys it. How else would such a man have his name known beyond his immediate family and the two or three members of his local Labour Party? Then again, if we stop making him mildly famous for being stupid, he may settle for mild notoriety by turning to petty crime. So perhaps we are performing a social service?

    I would pity him his intellectual and moral poverty, but for so long as the ruling Labour Party allows such people to remain members, I fear we must pity the British people more.

    Longrider’s approach is admirable, but unsustainable, IMHO. Let out that aggression, LR, or it may burst out later in an inappropriate way. We wouldn’t want even such an unutterable ****er as Harding to come to harm, would we?

    Comment by Tom Paine — March 25, 2007 @ 7:09 am

  3. Let out that aggression, LR, or it may burst out later in an inappropriate way. We wouldn’t want even such an unutterable ****er as Harding to come to harm, would we?

    Don’t tempt me…

    Comment by Longrider — March 25, 2007 @ 8:58 am

  4. Did somebody call? The whole area of regulation is extremely worrying, and we’re working on the children’s angle at the moment. It’s not just mobile phones – there’s a new generation of GPS gizmos coming on to the market, a lot of them advertised to parents. One currently under development, the ‘KinderGuard’, even includes biometric sensors to transmit heart rate, skin temperature etc. Yes, honestly!

    All mobile location services have to abide by the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003, and by a voluntary code of practice, which you can download at:

    It really isn’t good enough, though. One MP introduced a private member’s bill last session to regulate location-based services, but it didn’t get anywhere. We tried an amendment to the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act that would have at least required those providing the services to undergo vetting procedures, but the govt seemed to think the voluntary COP was sufficient. Really, the only hope is to push for legislation that imposes a proper licensing regime.

    Comment by archrights — March 25, 2007 @ 2:02 pm

  5. Thank you, ArchRights. I knew I could rely on your invaluable assistance.

    I see that in the debate on the amendment, where you got a name check, Judy Mallaber MP said:

    We are walking into a world where we could each easily be subject to surveillance without knowing it. If we do not get to grips with that now, it will be too late, and perhaps in a year we will be asking, “Why didn’t we get to grips with it?” We have been very slow. The Department of Trade and Industry even gave an enterprise award to one of those products. When we queried whether it should not have checked that out with the children’s organisations in relation to child safety issues, it said, “Why should we?” That product supposedly deals with child safety, but the DTI had not clicked about that.

    Her speech on the Ten Minute Rule bill about this things is also worth reading.

    Comment by notsaussure — March 25, 2007 @ 2:26 pm

  6. I don’t want to defend this Neil Harding person who I’ve never heard of and who sounds rather foolish from the quotes above, but there is another angle I’d like to mention. It’s sort of academic, but it might be of some interest.

    In some anarchist philosophies, the idea of a complete lack of privacy is central: everything about everyone is known to everyone else. Like many of the ideas of anarchist philosophies, this has to be looked at very carefully or it looks totally absurd.

    I think the analysis goes something like this: in a given society there are various asymmetries; of power, information, wealth, etc. Power is in some sense central – asymmetries of information and wealth cause asymmetries in power. Anarchism is concerned with eliminating asymmetries in power, and consequently eliminating information asymmetries is important. One way to do this is total openness and transparency and the near elimination of privacy.

    But it has to be seen in context. What the government and (it appears) Neil Harding are proposing is nothing like an information symmetry but greater surveillance which is clearly asymmetric.

    I think there are some good arguments in favour of the anarchist no-privacy scheme (although ultimately I find it hard to agree with personally), but they are senseless in the context of modern Western forms of government which have so many asymmetries of power, wealth, education, etc. I think perhaps it’s worth bearing in mind that some of the government’s and its supporters’ arguments in favour of these surveillance measures are not intrinsically wrong, but merely politically wrong (deeply so). It may help us to understand how these things gain acceptance.

    Comment by Dan Goodman — March 27, 2007 @ 12:07 am

  7. Been away in Sweden the last few days.

    I knew I might have taken a bit of a battering over my somewhat clumsy comments (and yes I am fairly lazy as well sometimes).

    But saying that, I stand by every word.

    The important part of the tracking for me is that it is available for everyone on the internet. Dan’s comments about Anarchism and no privacy make some interesting points that ally with my ideas. We will all have personal handheld computers in the future (assuming we avoid ecological death)- be able to check where anyone is. Wouldn’t the ability of someone to be able to check the location of known or potential stalkers improve their safety?

    Labour of course, are not proposing anything of the kind that I am suggesting and you are right that most of my colleagues would indeed be embarrassed by my ideas but so what? That doesn’t mean I am not right.

    Like I said all this talk of this country being a fascist big brother state is ridiculous. Take a look around you at how free and prosperous most people’s lives are.

    Comment by Neil Harding — March 27, 2007 @ 9:16 am

  8. The important part of the tracking for me is that it is available for everyone on the internet.

    As I pointed out to you elsewhere, this is without doubt one of the most dangerous suggestions you have come up with. There are plenty of perfectly legitimate reasons why someone would not want their whereabouts known – victims of abuse, for example. And you want it available on the Internet? For God’s sake man! Have you not the sense you were born with?

    That doesn’t mean I am not right.

    You are not right.

    Comment by Longrider — March 27, 2007 @ 2:08 pm

  9. Dan, I’m tempted to say that you’ve just provided another illustration of why a state of anarchy would be so unpleasant that no one could possibly want it, and leave it at that!

    But while I see, I think, the theoretical basis for the idea you describe, why on earth should such an arrangement commend itself to anyone? The remedy sounds considerably worse than the ill — asymmetries in power — than it seeks to cure. I’m against the abuse of power, too, but I’d seek remedy abuses (rather than get rid of them, or the potential for them, altogether) through an impartial legal system, which I see as one of the best, though certainly imperfect, defence against abuse by the powerful to which the weak have access.

    Neil, as I understand it, you appear to think that a tool that enabled anyone to find out where anyone else was would not be of as much — if not considerably more — interest and use to stalkers as it would be to anyone else. Furthermore, I fail to see why you consider the present remedy against stalkers — identify your stalker and either take out a civil injunction against him or have him arrested for harassment and get a restraining order — is so ineffective that the only solution is to drop all the rest of us (who’re neither stalkers nor their victims) into a giant gold-fish bowl.

    I don’t know to whom you’ve been talking, but I certainly don’t claim we live in a ‘fascist big-brother state’. I do certainly say, though, that we’re sleep-walking into a society of ever greater levels of surveillance — far higher levels than other European countries seem to find necessary. I also say that this lends itself to abuse, even though that abuse may, at present, be the result of over-enthusiasm and misunderstanding (rather like the over-enthusiastic misunderstanding that got the chap arrested as a terrorist for heckling at a Labour Party conference) than of deliberate policy. Not all future governments can, however, be relied upon to be as respectful of the the law and people’s liberties as is this one, and some might think it dangerous to put such tools into their hands.

    It always amazes me, by the way, that Labour activists are prepared to accept from Blair outrages they’d never have accepted from a Tory Prime Minister. Can you imagine the fuss we’d have seen had a young woman been threatened with arrest for wearing a tee-shirt carrying the slogan ‘Bugger Thatcher’ or ‘Bugger Major’ at an event where such sentiments would be very much echoed by other participants?

    Comment by notsaussure — March 27, 2007 @ 4:01 pm

  10. […] is fair to say I came in for a little criticism (here, here, here and here) for writing this post and in particular these […]

    Pingback by Longrider » Neil… Again — March 27, 2007 @ 9:59 pm

  11. Not Saussure – as I said, I tend to agree that that sort of society is not desirable. Three points though.

    (1) That’s only one conception of anarchism. There are many others which disagree.

    (2) To evaluate whether or not it would be desirable, you have to consider that the changes they are proposing to society would be very far reaching. They’re not saying that we should just introduce that and leave everything else the same. To start with, this proposal is usually coupled with the idea that you would abolish law (just to give an idea of how radical the proposals are). Total openness, as well as seeking to eliminate the asymmetries of power, is also essential to anarchist alternatives to law. It’s difficult to think about what it would be like by comparing with how things have been in the past, or how they are in the present, and I don’t think we can do the topic justice in these tiny little comment boxes!

    (3) We don’t know what it would be like to live in a totally open society. For all we know, it might be a wonderfully liberating experience. That’s certainly what the anarchists who make these proposals think. In some ways, it’s quite a pleasant and idealistic thought to imagine a society based on truth and openness.

    Anyway, I think this is probably straying a little too far from the original topic. :-)

    Comment by Dan Goodman — March 27, 2007 @ 11:47 pm

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