WRITTEN ON June 27th, 2009 BY William Heath AND STORED IN Political engagement, We told you so..., What do we want?, Wibbipedia/MindtheGap

[updated] Here’s a socking great Tweet from David Cameron to Imperial College. He lambasts control state Britain, ID cards, ContactPoint, RIPA and the surveillance state. These things are, as we have said many times, far form Ideal. But he goes on speak with some conviction and some detail on a positive agenda of transparency, accountabiliy and personal empowerment.

Information is power – because information allows people to hold the powerful to account. This has never been more true than today, in the information age. The internet is an amazing pollinator, spreading ideas and information all over the globe in minutes. It turns lonely fights into mass campaigns; transforms moans into movements; excites the attention of hundreds, thousands, millions of people and stirs them to action. And constantly accelerating technology makes information infinitely more powerful.

We see the power of this information in Iran. Every time the Iranian state has tried to choke the flow of information to dampen down the protests, people have turned to technology to share and access information. When the state cut off text messages to stop people coordinating their protests, the protesters switched to social media like Twitter and Facebook. When foreign journalists had their visas taken off them, people on the streets started uploading video clips onto YouTube. And when the government tried to monitor internet traffic and ban popular websites, people outside Iran set up proxy internet servers so Iranians could continue to access information anonymously.

He talks of a wide range of public data:

We’re going to set this data free. In the first year of the next Conservative Government, we will find the most useful information in twenty different areas ranging from information about the NHS to information about schools and road traffic and publish it so people can use it. This information will be published proactively and regularly – and in a standardised format so that it can be ‘mashed up’ and interacted with. What’s more, because there is no complete list that can tell us exactly what data the government collects, we will create a new ‘right to data’ so that further datasets can be requested by the public.

There’s a danger this strictly non-partisan blog may start to appear to favour Punch over Judy here (I feel Tom Watson looking over my shoulder as I sit). Full credit for the Power of Information work, full stop. But the personal data agenda is so wrong. The authoritarian, expensive and unimaginative policies we’ve critcised as far from Ideal for five years are all dreamt up under Labour, and defended – often in an unimpressive and even insulting manner – by Labour ministers whose thinking seems solidified in centralised bureaucratic concrete. They’re bad listeners at the top of government.

The LibDems and Greens have always been pretty cool on this stuff, but now it’s a concerted and co-ordinated burst of Tory Wibbies. We can just sit here and tag them “We told you so”. Some very good people must be advising the Tories (it’s not me). And they’re listening.

I do wonder, as a postscript, what good loyal Labours and LibDems who “get it” make of recent speeches by Pauline Neville-Jones and David Cameron. Hey, even my local MP Jeremy Hunt is at it. Does the desire to see the right thing done in the information age transcend visceral party loyalty?

3 Responses to “David Cameron on surveillance, accountability and empowerment with information”

Will Rowan wrote on June 27th, 2009 1:45 pm :

For many years I’ve taken the view that if there’s some simple things that citizens can do to enhance ‘life, liberty & pursuit of happiness’ for all, then it would be unreasonable not to participate.

So “an identity card” is a reasonable thing to be asked to carry. I’ve nothing to hide – and neither have so the vast majority of citizens. But then, in pursuit of making a simple (innocent?) commitment to citizenry more secure, more useful, it becomes over-complex, over-expensive, and arguably no closer to being either more secure or more useful. In transition from ‘innocent’ to ‘secure’, it comes to represent a culture that while professing to protect our liberties, achieves the opposite.

To have universal adoption of ID cards is not a task anybody would sensibly set themselves. There’s better routes for the average citizen, and the non-particpants are… etc etc
Managing by exception is the only sensible approach – but not one that seems to be understood by bureaucrats.

We’re all very willing to share our data with people we trust. Combine the loyalty card databases of the major supermarkets, petrol retailers and iTunes, and you’d have a vastly richer picture than any Home Office service. If Tesco Pharmacy offered a Health Check service, and drew conclusions about your health & eating/shopping habits, would you object if summary data were exchanged with your GP? & vice versa?

Until we trust our Government with our privacy, Government should get out of the data business and leave it to trusted 3d parties to deliver services that citizens find useful. Act as an agent for change, and an enabler for services which citizens value.

UPsum: an authoritarian approach to privacy & security is expensive, doesn’t achieve objectives, and undermines citizen’s trust.
Where Gov’t acts as catalyst & enabler, individual, social & commercial interests can achieve many objectives, at reduced cost & complexity. With added trust from citizens.

David Moss wrote on June 28th, 2009 11:18 pm :

1. The person who has actually tweeted on these matters sockingly, I put it to you, is Chris Huhne, who has taken the trouble to publish a Freedom Bill. He and his fellow Lib Dems make it all look very simple and comprehensible.

2. David Cameron and his retinue of consumer marketing experts, by contrast, project a complicated and mixed message. They will tear up the contract for ID cards. But not the contracts for the National Identity Register database nor the biometrics database. They advocate nudging, if you remember, and they seek to control people’s volition by the appointment of a so far unnamed responsibility neglect tsar:

Cameron Conservatism puts no faith in central direction and control. Instead, it seeks to identify social and environmental responsibilities that participants in the free market are likely to neglect, and then establish frameworks that will lead people and organisations to act of their own volition in ways that will improve society by increasing general wellbeing.

Take a look at Cameron’s latest speech, particularly:

By harnessing the wisdom of the crowd, we can find out what information individuals think will be important in holding the state to account.

You recognise that, don’t you, William – The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few by James Surowiecki. This is pop psychology where there should be principles. David Cameron really does seem to want to be the “heir to Blair”. There is no difference, it seems, between his thinking about politics and, say, David Miliband.

Let’s, indeed, as you suggest, make this a non-partisan forum. Let’s have a bit more mention of the Lib Dems. They, at least, recognise that politics is sui generis and not a branch of consumer marketing.

Omar Kettani wrote on July 25th, 2009 10:46 pm :

While I understand that the Government might not be very suitable in handling our private data correctly, I do not have any reason to trust private entities neither. It remains very difficult to enforces laws that protect privacy, so blindly entrusting the private sector with our private lives appears very risky to me.