Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Stasi v the database state

Timothy Garton Ash must have been reading Andrew Curry's piece in Wired. As someone who knew East Germany from the inside we should take him seriously when he says:
This has got to stop. Britain's snooper state is getting completely out of hand. We are sleepwalking into a surveillance society, and we must wake up. When the Stasi started spying on me, as I moved around East Germany 30 years ago, I travelled on the assumption that I was coming from one of the freest countries in the world to one of the least free. I don't think I was wrong then, but I would certainly be wrong now. Today, the people of East Germany are much less spied upon than the people of Britain. The human rights group Privacy International rates Britain as an "endemic surveillance society", along with China and Russia, whereas Germany scores much better...

The fantastic advance of information and communications technology gives the state - and private companies as well - technical possibilities of which the Stasi could only dream. Most of your life is now mapped electronically, minute by minute, centimetre by centimetre, through your mobile phone calls, your emails, your web searches, your credit card purchases, your involuntary appearances on CCTV, and so on. Had the East German secret police had these snooping super-tools, my Stasi file would have measured at least 3,000 pages, not a mere 325.

We therefore need to strengthen the protection of data, privacy and civil rights simply to remain as free as we were before. As technology lifts the sea level of information flow, we have to build up the dykes...

Of course that flourish about the Stasi is hyperbole. As someone who actually lived under the Stasi, I know we're nowhere near that. But the amount of information collected and shared - not to mention lost - by the British government far exceeds the Stasi's modest 160km of paper files. The potential for it to be abused, in the wrong hands, is simply enormous. Liberty is not preserved simply by putting our trust in the good intentions of our rulers, civil servants and spooks. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Thanks to Glyn via the ORG list for the pointer.

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