Classical Podium: Do computers threaten liberty?

Classic Podium; From a speech by the former cabinet minister Tony Benn at a workshop on the `Data Bank Society' organised by the National Council for Civil Liberties (15 November 1970)
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The Independent Culture
THREE YEARS ago I attended a conference in Edinburgh on data processing, and there was a Soviet professor who began his speech by saying that in the last 25 years there had been three great scientific developments: one was nuclear energy, which at Hiroshima and Nagasaki shocked the world; the second was the discovery of man's capacity to travel in space, which thrilled the world; the third was the discovery and invention of the computer, which went more or less unnoticed, and which was the most important of the three.

I entirely share this view because, when one looks at the future of our society, it is communications technology that provides the central nervous system of all organisations - governmental, military and industrial. Information is the new man-made raw material upon which all societies in future will live. The creation, the evaluation, the packaging, the transmission and the using of knowledge are going to be the basis for man's life from now on.

What we are discussing at this workshop is man's place in this system, and it is not a technical problem we are discussing but a political one. It does not require technical knowledge in order to understand what is happening and what the problem is.

We are not talking about a Luddite answer, but about the regulations and control by law of this enormous power.

Is data collected openly? Is it collected secretly? Is it collected directly or indirectly? We must regulate and control those who are authorised to collect it, to store it, to use it, to transmit it. We must decide to whom they may transmit it and for what purpose, where it is kept, and by whom and for how long - for ever?

How do you protect Sir Alec Douglas-Home from having his name submitted to the yippies as a would-be member, so that all the computers recording this begin to identify him as an undesirable and dangerous figure? Who is responsible at every stage for this information?

If we are talking about the end of privacy, let us end the privacy of those who record the facts about us, and let those who are the librarians of this system have to put their imprint on each bit of information they store, so that later, if it turns out to be inaccurate, we know who put the inaccurate information into the machine.

The doctrine of personal responsibility has to be re-injected into these systems. What rights has the citizen got? Has he the right to know that information about him is being collected, to decline to have it collected, to be told why it's collected, who is collecting it and how long it is to be collected? What damages might be paid to a man for inaccurate information wrongly used? And where do the government and the supervision of government activity come into the picture of defence and protection which we are now considering?

Two final points. The first question I would ask you is whether privacy is actually what we are talking about. I think that the anonymity of modern urban life is one of the most soul-destroying things that has ever happened to society.

When you have created the totally anonymous society, then you pay for psychiatrists to listen to you, personnel officers to consider human factors, members of Parliament and welfare officers to whom you can write to break through the curtain of anonymity. Do not base this campaign on privacy on the sacred right and duty of everybody to live wholly separate from his fellow men.

Second, make it clear - and this is the political significance of what we are doing - that as a community we recognise the great potential and value of the system that is now at our disposal, and that we do not intend to surrender our power by default to those who have the information that, if abused, could take away our civil rights.

And do not be pessimistic about the capacity of winning this battle. I know that many people in this area get very depressed because no one seems to be interested in it, and yet all of the great changes in our society - the development of the trade unions, the welfare state, the health service, proper education and, now, the war against pollution - have bubbled up from below when sufficient people were concerned about the problem to demand an answer to it.