What the Home Secretary didn’t say

All of us, from time to time, have something which we want to avoid saying: “I’m sorry”, “I was wrong”, “Let’s do it your way…” and so on.

There are some tried and tested tactics for these situations. For instance:

1 – Change the subject – “Oh look, there’s a gecko in my cereal!”;

2 – Completely ignore the subject:

Bored offspring: “Mum… mum… I need £10, Michael and I are going to the park to drink cider”
Parent (from behind newspaper): “Mmm? That’s nice, dear”… (no tenner is forthcoming, naturally).

3 – Boldly assert exactly the opposite of what we don’t want to say: “That new tie of yours is superbly tasteful”.

Politicians, of course, are no different. If anything, they have to be all the more careful about what they do say, because of the enormous scrutiny applied to their every utterance. They have the same techniques at their disposal, and I have the impression of having been given an object lesson in their use by Alan Johnson, the current Home Secretary, at Monday’s RSA event.

He was speaking on the topic of “Security in the 21st Century – Global, National, Local” (which, now that I type it, I realise looks a lot like the marketing strapline for a recovering bank…).

OVer the course of about 20 minutes, Mr Johnson discoursed – fluently, it has to be said – on immigration policy (about 10 minutes), and then about 2 minutes each on counter-terrorism, how rubbish Tory policy is (tactic No.1, while we’re here), RIPA and proportionality, Control Orders and proportionality, and the Human Rights Act.

You may have seen my brief reactions/quotations on Twitter – but the 140-character format doesn’t really lend itself to a more reasoned critique.

So here’s the big problem I had with the Home Secretary’s performance yesterday, competent exercise though it was: in essence, much of his argument was that, although the privacy rights of the individual need to be balanced against the powers of the State, there is, as he put it “no grand contest” between the two. His argument was that provisions such as the Human Rights Act do a good job of that. He also cited RIPA (the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) as a positive step – casting it as an Act which curbs the authorities’ ability to abuse existing powers of interception. A creative interpretation, and not one I have heard before – even from the law enforcement representatives I heard arguing for the new IMP (Intercept Management Programme) at the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Privacy back in July (Tactic No.3 in operation, one suspects).

In glossing over the government’s policies on biometrics and ID Cards (he mentioned them only by reference to foreign nationals, not UK citizens), and in avoiding any mention of the National Identity Register, the National DNA Database, ContactPoint or any of the other aggregations of personal data this government has established, the Home Secretary simply avoided any possible discussion of the real practical issue underlying his claims of balance and proportionality (A positively textbook deployment of Tactic No.2).

All the policy objectives he mentioned – better management of migration and immigration; counter-terrorism; ‘protection of our way of life’ against local, national and global threats – all these are predicated, more or less explicitly, on the aggregation, connection and sharing of data about individuals and citizens. For Mr Johnson, the counter-balance to that is the idea that ‘our way of life’ might be founded on principles of respect for the individual and the individual’s rights to privacy, self-determination and so on, as set out in the Human Rights Act. All well and good – but in the digitally-mediated world which Mr Johnson depicted, those rights depend precisely on the opposite of what he’s using to achieve his first set of objectives.

In the digitally-mediated world, privacy and self-determination depend on the individual’s ability to exercise consent and control over the disclosure, aggregation and sharing of their personal data. Most online services, as they currently stand, do a pretty poor job of that, even in the limited use-case of delivering whatever service it is they provide. For example, as someone shrewdly pointed out recently, most so-called “Privacy Policy Statements” are actually nothing of the sort: they are in fact invitiations for the consumer to waive their privacy rights.

When you then try to combine the goals of privacy-respecting service provision (control, consent) with parallel goals of law enforcement, the two sets of objectives clash directly. One requires you to segregate and compartmentalise data, granting access only as specified by the data subject; the other requires you to aggregate and share data, whether or not the data subject knows or consents.

Simultaneously meeting those conflicting objectives requires information management disciplines for which UK public sector organisations are, regrettably, anything but a showcase. I don’t mean that as a criticism of them, by the way: those information management disciplines are rare indeed, and no organisation I can think of has mastered them all. In many cases, the technology to underpin them just isn’t in the market.

The Home Secretary does no-one a service by either behaving as if that problem doesn’t exist, or – possibly worse – ploughing ahead in the delusion that our public sector bodies have already cracked it.

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One thought on “What the Home Secretary didn’t say

  1. Good, but I think you've only just started on what the Home Secretary didn't say.The lecture was billed as "a wide-ranging speech" (well it was certainly that, rambling across all sorts of stuff) in which "the Home Secretary, Rt Hon Alan Johnson MP will talk about the issues that affect people’s safety and security in 21st century – from antisocial behaviour to foreign policy".Well, actually, no he didn't. He may have planned to position himself as a future Labour leader in front of an intelligent and well-informed audience, but given the mess he got himself into last week, he may have torn up that speech and decided to scrape together a highly defensive and relatively dull speech using bits and pieces from his back catalogue, mostly about solutions and policies, rather than the issues themselves. The press has picked up on a couple of places where he appeared to acknowledge past imperfections in Government policy, but this was pretty small stuff in my view.The only sign that greater schemes were afoot was his slip in which he named Alan Milburn as the foreign secretary. Government of all the Alans – what a dreadful prospect.

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