Shami Chakrabarti: Yet another step along a dangerous road

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The Independent Online

Once upon a time, I thought that this Government was complacent about our personal privacy. Then I thought they were careless with it. Now, from those in power, I see nothing but contempt for that little bit of personal space and security that is so essential to our dignity, that makes us all human.

When the private and family matters of Cabinet ministers are up for grabs, particularly by the grabbing hand of the tabloid press, Government is quick and right to protest. However, the same rules don't seem to apply to the rest of us.

My problem as director of Liberty is that at the height of the so-called "war on terror", when absolute rules like the prohibition on torture are compromised by our political rulers, how much harder to defend more subtle and qualified rights like the presumption of privacy from the chilling slogan politics of "nothing to hide, nothing to fear".

Those who speak up for personal privacy are routinely painted as paranoid cranks and, sure enough, some of them don't do the cause any favours. In reality, most sensible people know that privacy cannot be absolute and support necessary and proportionate intrusions for tightly defined purposes and under protection of law. However, a society that doesn't value and protect the privacy of the individual is one without intimacy, honesty or trust. Government has taken us too far down that dangerous road.

CCTV can be a useful tool when used in a targeted and proportionate manner to deter crime. But why should Britain be the CCTV capital of the world?

Then, there is the new political Viagra of the massive database, which joins the overbroad criminal offence and the unfair trial as the latest answer to society's ills.

Children are abused, neglected and under-protected, so the answer is a mammoth database containing intimate information on every single child in the country. DNA technology can be a vital tool in linking serious criminals to the scenes of their crimes so instead of a safe, secure and well-maintained database of those convicted of serious sexual and violent crimes, we have a growing and racially-biased database of people who have been unfortunate to come into contact with the police, including those never charged or even cautioned with a crime.

Perhaps when policy is built upon opinion-polling rather than principle, these are the inevitable authoritarian results? But I wonder. Support for the intrusive, discriminatory and expensive folly of identity cards is in steady decline.

The latest bright idea of an information free-for-all within Government with the massive corresponding risks of error and fraud will only exacerbate widening popular concerns as to the competence of public administration and who really serves whom. Any new Prime Minister seeking to put some principle, prudence and trust back into politics might be tempted to think again.

The writer is Director of Liberty