Top Secret

Time to Reflect

Originally published in Crème de la Crème, January 2008

Nic Boyde

Freedom of Information should mean just that: Freedom!

Western governments and their democracies have been struggling with the modern paradox of requiring more information to be available generally and a fear of that information being available in the first place.

Various laws have been enacted, in various guises, to legislate as to What, and with Which and to Whom, to quote the old limerick. Britain’s Data Protection Act, intended to make Britain compliant with EU requirements, has notoriously saddled the country with a regulatory burden and bureaucracy that in itself has driven businesses away or out of business altogether, while failing to protect that which should be protected.

Enormous powers were delegated to a Commissioner, who, allowed to create regulation without further reference to Parliament, did so, to the extent that regulations were promulgated that directly contradicted the express wishes of Parliament (as expressed in the Act), and the only right of appeal is to the same Commissioner.

Freedom of Information is generally taken to mean that anyone who believes that a file of information about him or herself exists, can apply to see that information, and the right to correct it if it can be proved that it is wrong. As an extension, some legislatures, such as Australia’s, have empowered anyone to seek non-personal information (that is, not about himself, or someone else), within certain limits. All this in return for a fee, intended to offset the cost of gathering the information concerned. Some laws enable information to be demanded from anyone, or just the Government, or just parts of the Government.

Some laws penalise keepers of information heavily should any of their data escape their control – irrespective of whether negligence can be proved, or whether or not damages be caused. Ludicrously, banks in the UK were advised, in writing, by the Data Protection Commissioner, that prior written permission should be sought from all persons making entry into a banking hall for their images to be captured on CCTV systems intended to help the Police to identify bank robbers after a hold-up. Reason: one’s image is “personal information”. It manifestly isn’t of course – nothing is more public than one’s face – but the pathetic jobsworths who staff this worthless bureau sought to distinguish between local government councils and police forces who place such cameras in the street and evil capitalist banks who deserve to be robbed. (Or perhaps it was some other reason – suggestions welcome).

Other legislatures, particularly in the USA, are moving in another direction altogether. Names, addresses, voter records, car registration details – almost anything held on an individual by the government is available to any enquirer – and for free. In Washington State for example, one can enquire what party a voter is registered with, and whether or not that voter voted at the last few elections. (But not which party the voter actually voted for).

Scary stuff – but why is this so threatening? We are used, in the brave new world of universal banking, to possession of a cheque book no longer being sufficient evidence of credit-worthiness. We need plastic cards and PINs and “can I see your Driver’s Licence?” British Colombia in Canada issues a non-driver driver’s licence, so that some form of acceptable ID is available to all. The merest pipsqueak post office teller can demand ID, and we are so brow-beaten that we hand it over. It has name, address, picture, and a nice official number, and is the work of seconds to copy. Yet all the information about us that a post office clerk could desire is already held in their computers – why ask us for a piece of plastic?

The answer is things like the Data Protection Act – even petty information is guarded so well that it can’t be seen, even by other government agencies.

The solution is to stop pretending that we are living in a pre-1984 world. Accept it. Big Brother knows everything there is to know about you – what do you want to keep private? Sexual inclination? Yes, OK, unless you are a paedophile. Religion? Yes, OK, unless you are a member of the murderous sect Aum Shinri Kyo, or Al Qaeda. Criminal Record? Yes, unless you are a convicted sex offender. Failed criminal charges (arrested but not charged, or charged and tried but found not guilty)? Yes, unless the crime charged was a sex offence. Home address? Yes, unless you are a released convict. Your salary? Yes, unless you are a senior company official, and in any event all of HR knows it, and so does your boss, his secretary, your secretary, and all their mates.

So why can’t I know the address of the dingbat who reversed into my car and then sped off in his own?

The bobbies might feel that they might be called upon to attend to prevent a breach of the peace if I went around and knocked on the door of such a car-owner, but equally I might just be seeking an address to send an invoice for repairs, backed by a solicitor’s letter.

I am inclined to think that in a small town where everyone knows everyone else, such behaviour just doesn’t happen – why speed off if you are known? A quick exchange of insurance details and life proceeds. Making car registration details as public as one’s small-town face can hardly lead to anything very terrible and might lead to more civilised driving.

No: it is time to face it. All Government information not to do with national security should be available free. About anyone. So what if journalists sniff around your personal life? They’ll soon stop when you can do the same to them. There is an inequality in access to information now – policemen, tax-men, other government busybodies (and some of these moonlighting on the payroll of professional snoops), all these have access to information denied to the public at large, and this is not being exploited in your interests, as you don’t need me to tell you.

It is time to level the playing field and open all the filing cabinets.

Let the cats out of the bags.


Time to Reflect as published in PDF form