Thursday, January 31, 2008

Our state collects more data than the Stasi ever did

Timothy Garton-Ash, one of the leading campaigners against the communist regimes in Eastern Europe during the 1980s, has a powerful article in today's Guardian comparing East Germany under the Stasi to the surveillance-on-steroids of today's UK:

"Our stalwart information commissioner, Richard Thomas, has fought a valiant battle to protect what the Germans call, with portentous profundity, the right to informational self-determination. A valiant battle, but a losing one — as the commissioner himself acknowledges. The warning that we are 'sleepwalking into a surveillance society' comes from him.

"For even as he tries to strengthen the dykes, more powerful arms of government are busy tearing them down: in the name of fighting terrorism, crime, fraud, child molestation, drugs, religious extremism, racial abuse, tax evasion, speeding, illegal parking, fly-tipping, leaving too many garbage bags outside your home, and any other 'risk' that any of those nearly 800 public (busy)bodies feels called upon to 'protect' us from. Well, thank you, nanny — but kindly eff off to East Germany. I'd rather stay a bit more free, even if means being a bit less safe."

I gave a presentation along similar lines last year at a NATO workshop (Wild West or gulag: models for policing cyberspace). One of the Russian intelligence officers present asked me what was wrong with the Stasi!


iang said...

Stasi were into everything. One in 10 adults were informers, basically everyone had informers around them. Ask any Ex-East German...

It's still a long way from there in the UK, in that I doubt you could name any informers in your 100-200 best buddies.

OTOH, maybe the UK doesn't need informers if they have digital oversight? It's more polite that way, no?

Dave said...

I was wondering if anyone has ever createda database that has the contact details of all public bodies that may have our data. I have been trying to work out what data about me is stored with who and who they share it with. I'd also love to be able to find out if any marketing compaines have my details.
I just think it would be a good idea to do an example of how much you can work out about someone with all this data flying around. It might wake a few people up.

Ian Brown said...

Yes - and private companies too. See the Data Protection Register at

Dave said...

I tried tye ICO website, but you need to know the contact details of the company to search the database. If I knoew their contact detials, I'd know where my data was.
Any ideas on where else I could look?

Ian Brown said...

I don't believe such a central register exists. Perhaps organisations should be required to notify individuals annually of the personal information they were holding, from where it was obtained, for what purpose, and to whom it had been disclosed.

Certainly would be an incentive for organisations to minimise personal data holdings :)

Dave said...

Forcing orgs etc to tell people they have their data and where they got it from would be great, but chances are they would complain it cost to much to do t every year. I think they should be forced to notify people if data about them is collected, even if it is not every year. There would also be the problem of having the correct address.

I Think it would make a good TV programe about privacy, or lack of, if someone was given the time and the ability to track down what happened to their data and who has it