18 August, 2004: Everything you read in the newspapers is true

[ Home page | Web log ]

So, long time no 'blog. Sorry about that (and isn't ``'blog'' an ugly word?). Meanwhile, lots of interesting things have happened, but instead I thought I'd write something about this article by Oliver Kamm, some of whose rants are now published in The Times (`a British tabloid', as I would say if I were obeying the Economist's style guide; I've linked to the piece on Oliver's site, rather than on the newspaper's, since The Times doesn't have a proper archive any more).

Oliver has decided to criticise the comments of the Information Commisssioner, Richard Thomas, who the other day -- in an interview with the very same Times -- stated that,

My anxiety is that we don't sleepwalk into a surveillance society where much more information is collected about people, accessible to far more people shared across many more boundaries than British society would feel comfortable with.

and pointed out how dangerous this could be:

Some of my counterparts in Eastern Europe, in Spain, have experienced in the last century what can happen when government gets too powerful and has too much information on citizens. When everyone knows everything about everybody else and the Government has got massive files, whether manual or computerised.

These are fair and reasonable concerns, as has been pointed out here before, most notably by Chris Williams. Roughly speaking, the usual reasons for a country to get (for instance) an ID card scheme are one or more of (a) conquered by the Germans; (b) conquered by the Russians; (c) subjugated by a home-grown autocratic government. Richard Thomas points out that the experience of countries which have suffered those unhappy fates should inform our own.

Oliver, of course, thinks that Richard Thomas is being silly, chiefly it seems because the text of his interview contained a grammatical error:

``I don't want to start talking paranoia language,'' said Mr. Thomas, his indifference between noun and adjective serving as a cipher for his wider confusions....

Now, Oliver Kamm is by his own admission an objective commentator, so we can be certain that he has checked that these were the actual words of the Information Commissioner and that a more grammatical statement (for instance, ``... talking the language of paranoia...'') had not been rearranged by a subeditor or the journalist who wrote the piece. In any case I am sure that The Times never makes such typographical mistakes.

Anyway, he doesn't really explain what he thinks that Thomas's `confusions' are (so far as I understand it he seems to think that anybody who makes a comparison between what goes on in happy democratic Britain and a bad thing that happened in another country is bad evil and wrong). Instead Oliver goes on to make the usual unthinking defence of the schemes -- the National Identity Register, the ID card, a separate population register and the Children Act database -- that Thomas warns against. He writes,

How much information a democracy should amass on its citizens is plainly important. When we know that some British citizens support terrorist groups, then the balance between personal liberty and national security may need to be reassessed. There is a plausible case that better information would reduce the State's intrusiveness for the peaceable, while circumscribing the activities of the malevolent. More widely, as governments have duties beyond public order and national security, welfare, for example, they require accurate records of earnings and employment.

The last part especially suggests that he doesn't actually know anything about the schemes which Thomas has criticised. The National Identity Register won't contain information on earnings and employment; indeed, that information is already held by the Inland Revenue. The arguments made for the `nothing to hide' position may be `plausible' for Kamm, but it's rare to see them actually articulated, and Oliver of course doesn't bother.

This is actually an example of a wider problem with Kamm's style which this piece nicely illustrates. In The Times, (though not, oddly, on his web log) his piece was subtitled,

Anxiety about data protection diverts the West from the genuine threat.

which is a fair summary and will save you the bother of reading it. It's pretty bog-standard Kamm stuff -- complete with slightly obscure cultural reference, portentous tone, grammatical sniping, the inevitable bitching about a Liberal Democrat, and a rhetorical attack on Soviet communism, only fifteen years too late -- and in sum is pretty content-free. He finishes up with a return to his conversational strange attractor -- the `genuine threat' of the subtitle, which is, of course....

... wait for it...

... terrorists and bloody ``weapons of mass destruction'' again: (emphasis mine)

The forces of theocratic totalitarianism aim at the destruction of Western civilisation and its replacement by a restored Caliphate. Armed with technologies that they must never secure, they could in principle inflict grievous harm on us and our way of life. The more our public servants talk of totalitarianism without really meaning it, the less serious will that threat be taken. That really would be, as the Information Commissioner put it, ``a danger, yes''.

-- though, rather than talking about the vague and meaningless category of `weapons of mass destruction', he's now talking even more vaguely about completely unnamed `technologies'. A long time ago Scott Adams wrote, in Dilbert,

Stupidity is like nuclear power: it can be used for good or evil.

And you don't want to get any of it on you.

-- and this, coincidentally, is about all that chemical, biological and nuclear weapons have in common. As I've said before, anybody who talks seriously about `weapons of mass destruction' without saying whether they are talking about nuclear, chemical or biological weapons either doesn't know what they're talking about, or is trying to mislead. As for his strange attractor, Oliver makes no case for his idea that -- completely reasonable -- concerns about data protection are in any way distracting us from concerns about terrorists and the vague `technologies' about which he is so worried but too lazy to name. It's hard to see how he could without saying anything specific about either subject, which would be an unimaginable break from his usual style.

In other news, I see that the Police have now charged some of the alleged terrorists they arrested last week with various offences, including the marvellously-named,

conspiracy to commit a public nuisance by using radioactive material, toxic gas, chemicals or explosives,

-- yes, I suppose that would be a nuisance (though note how the `WMD' idiocy has burrowed its way into the law) -- and the completely ludicrous,

possession of information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism,

because, apparently, they had `a reconnaissance plan' (presumably Police for `a map') of some financial institutions in New York, and `an extract of the Terrorist's Handbook'. (I had a look on Amazon but, to my surprise, couldn't find a copy of the Terrorist's Handbook. Perhaps they meant the Anarchist's Cookbook -- let's hope that's the kind of material on which the terrorists are relying!)

For those who haven't seen this latest piece of legal lunacy, the offence of `possessing information...' is defined in s.58 of the Terrorism Act 2000:

(1) A person commits an offence if--

(a) he collects or makes a record of information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism, or

(b) he possesses a document or record containing information of that kind.

(2) In this section "record" includes a photographic or electronic record.

What, one might wonder, is ``information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism''? So far as I can tell, the answer is, `almost anything'. For instance, the other day, the Government sent me a paper copy of their booklet, Preparing for Emergencies. (Coincidentally, the leaflet arrived on my birthday. I was jolly chuffed that the Government had given me the gift of safety from terrorists, I can tell you.)

Much of the information in this booklet is ``of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.'' For instance, it would tell the prospective terrorist how people have been trained to behave when a bomb goes off, which would be useful information to a terrorist who wanted to know where to plant a second bomb. Of course, now I've told you that, this page is information ``of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.'' Of course, there is a get-out clause for the person caught by the Police in possession of a copy of `preparing for emergencies':

(3) It is a defence for a person charged with an offence under this section to prove that he had a reasonable excuse for his action or possession.

-- you have to prove to the authorities that you had a `reasonable excuse'. This is, suffice it to say, completely nuts. How on earth can you prove anything about why you have information in your possession?

Anyway, it's promising that the Police have actually charged the latest bunch of alleged terrorists with something. Presumably this means that they're all British citizens, since otherwise they could just be locked up in Belmarsh indefinitely, saving the expense and bother of a trial. It will be even more interesting if there is any actual evidence against them. I'm guessing that Oliver didn't know about this in advance, but we anyway we should admire his luck in talking about the `technologies that [the terrorists] must never secure' at such a propitious moment....

Copyright (c) 2004 Chris Lightfoot; available under a Creative Commons License.