Liberty or Security: Do We Really Have to Choose?
Security or Liberty?
Anybody with ambivalent feelings over the erosion of personal freedom by advances in security technology and, by implication, privacy, should pick up and read a copy of Liberty and Freedom in the Age of Terror by AC Grayling. It is a book that will blow the cobwebs from your mind and unhook the curtains from your eyes. It is a book that will, by turns, fill the reader with relief that the chilling scenarios painted by Grayling have not happened and, at the same time, sweat with horror that they still might. The book will put your fears over terrorism in perspective, and unmask our true oppressors.
The book throws a cold light on our complacency at the ever-increasing number of security devices in use, the menace of mission-creep, and our vapid excusing of the situation with our weak mumblings of "the innocent have nothing to fear." The book will be particularly enlightening to those - including me - who believed that personal freedom was born of modern advances in living standards. Yes, material prosperity has brought us freedom of movement, to an extent, but the essence of contemporary freedom hearkens back to Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment was a cultural movement that began in the 1770s. Enlightenment is best summed up by the words of Immanuel Kant: "Man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity", immaturity being "the inability to use one's own understanding without direction from another." The revolution in thought that followed led directly to the French Revolution and to the American War of Independence. It led more indirectly to the abolition of slavery. It led to the establishing of education for all in the West. Parts of the developing world still struggle to follow suit, but at least, the concept of a free, basic education for all is accepted as the norm.
Lack of Understanding
As Enlightenment unfurled, the Industrial Revolution was gathering apace. The plethora of security devices at our command today is the result of advances in technology, but our lack of understanding of their implications is reprehensible. New Labour's plan to issue every UK citizen with an ID card is now defunct, thanks to its defeat in the 2010 general election. However, while the cards were still a twinkle in the parliamentary eye, their issue - or not - drew fierce argument from the populace. One of the more curious defences was: "We have so much ID already, in the form of credit cards, a passport, a driver's licence - another card won't matter."
We stand in a totally different relation, i.e., as a consumer, to the bank than we do to the State. We can express dissatisfaction with a bank by withdrawing our custom. Passports and drivers' licences are issued by State agencies, but these are isolated agencies with restrictions placed on use of the data. What Grayling argues against is a State-sponsored electronic data bank containing intimate information on all citizens, with only the flimsiest legislation in place to control access to the information. There were many more arguments, both for and against, the issuing of State-sponsored ID. What emerged from the debates was that there is no clear reason to issue the citizenry with ID.
In a newspaper interview, (Telegraph, 2006), Tony Blair described how the issuing of biometric ID will do away with identifiers like NI and NHS numbers, birth certificates and even driver's licences. Strangely, he saw this as a good thing. He peppered his article with phrases like 'complete solution to complex problems' and 'improve protection for the vulnerable'. Far from being reassuring, the scenario he painted is terrifying. He stressed that the customers of commercial organisations like banks can already access their funds by using their fingerprints. I have already pointed out the difference between commercial ID and state-sponsored ID.
An Unsocial Contract
The possesion of a bank of biometric data on every citizen will change the entire relation between the citizen and the State, creating a contract the citizen can't pull out of. Grayling sounds out many more arguments surrounding ID cards than I can test-run here, but there is not one, solid reason in their favour. The issue of the cards would have been to the advantage of one group; the biometric technologists who stand to draw billions of pounds from the State and its citizenry. Our leaders claim to move with the intention of 'protecting our interests', but how long will those intentions last?
We have tough decisions to make...
Too often lately have those chilling words "we have tough decisions to make..." sounded through my living room. There follows a speech, usually of a fiscally prudent nature. Who is to say, to give us a guarantee that in these times, our personal data won't be sold off to business and individuals in yet another grand, neoliberal project that the powers-that-be insist will enhance all our lives? I finish this piece with the words of Benjamin Franklin: "Those who trade liberty for safety deserve neither."