I will not be downloading the NHS tracing app. This government cannot be trusted not to abuse our data

Are we expected to believe that this government, the most ruthless, morally bankrupt and dishonest the country has quite possibly ever had, will use our data judiciously?

Boris Johnson: People should not go to anti-racism demonstrations

Seven years ago The Guardian published the Snowden files, which detailed how the US National Security Agency was routinely spying on the entire population by accessing their privately held accounts with Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple and others.

It was doing so, it said, in the interests of counterterrorism; it had intercepted vital information shared between terrorists on these platforms, and had foiled real terror plots. It wasn’t interested in who you, Joe Bloggs, apprentice chemist from Hendon, was talking to on Facebook and why, so you didn’t have to worry.

This news ignited all the familiar arguments in a debate that is largely unchanged in hundreds of years. About positive and negative freedom, and sacrificing a portion of your liberty in return for protection (though in this case, consent for the sacrifice was never sought – it was simply taken).

The publication of the Snowden files, we are told, made life harder for security services by alerting the would-be wrongdoers to what they had been up to.

This newspaper’s then editor, Chris Blackhurst, wrote at the time that had the files come to him, he would not have published them. If MI5 have said that publication was not in the national interest, then who was he, a mere newspaper editor, to disbelieve them? Who is a journalist to decide what information is a danger to national security and what isn’t?

There were strong arguments on both sides, and valid disagreement. My own view, at the time, was that the issue forced your hand into taking a real, concrete view, not a conceptual or hypothetical one, on whether you trusted your government.

And I decided, perhaps naively, that I did. That this was Great Britain, a force for good in the world, just about. A well-governed country, in which the interests of ministers, civil servants and its security services were aligned with the people. There were many rogue states in the world and this was not one of them. That the security services were secretly helping themselves to private information I had shared, of my own free will, with arguably far more dubious entities, such as Google and Facebook, was an intrusion that I, on balance, just about, accepted.

Seven years later, we are being asked the same question again, and the stakes could hardly be higher. There is a deadly pandemic out there that is killing thousands of people and destroying the life chances of millions. The government wants us all to download an app that will record who we have been in contact with for longer than 15 minutes, and store that information centrally, somewhere.

I have thought about it, long and hard, and I have decided that I will not do it. It is not 2013 anymore, and I do not trust my government with my data. Pardon the pun, but to trust the people running the current government to look after your data would be like trusting the cookie monster to look after your cookies.

Questions of this nature tend to be hypothetical. Civil liberties campaigners who have objections to ID cards, or large health databases and so on, tend to do so, at least in this country, on moral rather than practical grounds. You might agree to carry an ID card now, on the watch of a moderate, benign government, but how might those powers be used in the future by more sinister forces?

This is not a conceptual or hypothetical question anymore, however. It is a real one. This country has an entirely malignant, entirely untrustworthy government. It is being run by the unsackable Dominic Cummings, whose own behaviour while running Vote Leave is a matter of public record.

The single most important breakthrough, made by him and his acolytes in 2016, was to micro-target people on social media – people whom profiling had told them would be susceptible to xenophobic, populist lies – and then provide them with the xenophobic, populist lies that would persuade them to vote for Brexit.

At the weekend, aggressive, racist thugs took to the streets of London in their thousands. Their behaviour has been condemned by the prime minister, though he bears direct responsibility for their radicalisation. The Brexit referendum was the single most radicalising moment in this country’s living memory, and it was done deliberately. Lies like “Turkey is joining the EU” have consequences.

Lies said by Boris Johnson himself, about how a “city the size of Newcastle” arrives in the UK every year, constitute the single greatest dumping of fuel on the racist fire that has occurred in this country in generations.

And as of now, this government wishes all of us to hand over our data, and expects us to believe that this government – the most ruthless, most morally bankrupt and most dishonest government the country has quite possibly ever had – will use it judiciously.

It wants us to believe that whatever information we willingly hand over won’t be misused, or used against us in some way, whenever election time should come around. To believe that, well, you would have to disregard the overwhelming evidence before your own eyes and ears.

For the last few years, most governments around the world have been trying to figure out how to protect what is left of the public realm from the terrifying new kind of politics set ablaze by social media.

Most governments are struggling in the face of the threat. Our government is not struggling; it is itself the threat. It is not looking for a cure, because it is the disease.

And this, ultimately, is the choice you must make. To do this particular small bit in the fight against the coronavirus, you have to ignore everything you know about the straightforward malevolence of the people who also happen to be showing themselves to be completely incapable of fighting it.

You are being asked to put your trust in a cadre of people who wear their complete untrustworthiness as a badge of pride.

It is, again, a thorny question, but ultimately, it is too much to ask. Actions have consequences. Our leaders must bear responsibility for what they have done.

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