Thursday, April 16, 2009
Liberalism, democracy and privacy in Europe
Yesterday the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), the third-largest political grouping in the European Parliament, launched their first European Civil Liberties day. They asked four NGOs to give short speeches on key current human rights issues, including European Digital Rights — on whose behalf I gave the speech below.
It's great to see today's launch of European Civil Liberties day. Coming from the UK, which Privacy International now rates as the worst surveillance state in the EU, I need all the optimism I can get. We have millions of CCTV cameras; an illegal DNA database of over 5m profiles including nearly 100,000 under-13s; and out-of-control Internet surveillance with 519,000 government accesses in 2007 to people's communications records.
The UK and its allies have been pushing this surveillance agenda at the European level, most noticeably with the Data Retention Directive but more subtly with the exchange of travel records with the US and a "principle of availability" that allows law enforcement databases to be shared across the EU.
Some of the member states are looking forward to much, much more electronic surveillance of their citizens. The Portuguese presidency in 2007 envisaged a "digital tsunami", where "Every object the individual uses, every transaction they make and almost everywhere they go will create a detailed digital record. This will generate a wealth of information for public security organisations". The former UK intelligence coordinator Sir David Omand recently added: "The realm of intelligence operations is of course a zone to which the ethical rules that we might hope to govern private conduct as individuals in society cannot fully apply."
This surveillance on steroids is being pushed by governments with little evidence it will prevent terrorism or reduce serious crime. Detailed criminological studies have found that CCTV cameras reduce crime levels by only around 2%, except in very specific circumstances such as indoor car parks. The US National Research Council recently concluded that "there is not a consensus within the relevant scientific community nor on the committee regarding whether any behavioral surveillance or physiological monitoring techniques are ready for use at all in the counterterrorist context given the present state of the science."
Liberals and democrats should campaign for a different kind of information society, where the human rights of citizens remain centre-stage, as they have been in Europe for the last sixty years and as they are proudly proclaimed in the EU's new Charter of Fundamental Rights. Members of Parliament must continue to stand up for citizens' rights in the face of anti-democratic attempts by some Council members to turn the EU into a surveillance society. Today's launch is a very positive step in that effort.