The UK government wants internet service providers to keep records of our email and web visits. Really, I am sure that it would love to collect that information on some new custom-designed, multi-billion-pound central database of its own – but it's been getting a lot of flack recently that it is a 'database state'. How very much more convenient to tell private companies they have to keep this information – and hand it over, on a daily basis, as and when the state demands.
In political science terms, this is national socialism: the state doesn't actually run businesses (or in this case, databases), it just forces private companies to behave as it chooses. Private companies become agents of the state. When you hand over personal information to your credit card provider, your phone company, your bank or any number of retailers, you are effectively giving that information to the state.
Given the number of terrorists and paedophiles we are led to believe are out there, perhaps we do want to give our law enforcement agencies the power to see what people are saying and doing on the net. Well, we might, if they used it only for that purpose, and if our state authorities were competent and focused only on public safety. Sadly, they regularly lose our data on the train. The civil service and the police see politicians, not the public, as their bosses. And huge numbers of officials have access to our data. When HMRC lost 2 million child benefit records in the mail, they revealed that it had been copied by a 'junior official'. Junior doctors were caught illicitly sharing juicy patient records of celebrities coming into their hospital. And so it goes on.
How many 'junior' officials are going to be able to demand our email information off my ISP? And if they come across something nicely embarrassing about someone, how many might just be tempted to sell it to the News of the World? Frankly, I would prefer my data to be held nice and secure by the private companies I choose to deal with, against whom I can take action against breach of trust. When governments breach our trust, there is no recourse to any justice.
Dr Butler's book The Rotten State of Britain is now in paperback.