You’ll Be Sick and Sorry Later

April 26, 2009

Most parents will remember the situation. The child is over-excited and demanding. The day has been long. The parent knows what he should do (‘he’ because I have been that parent)- just say ‘No’. The demands are insistent and clear. The child wants ice cream. The child really shouldn’t have it because of all that went before, and is to come. But, in the end (against your better judgment and maybe just this once etc etc), the slack parent gives in. But the ice cream is presented not with ‘Enjoy’ but with ‘you’ll be sorry later’ – and in the expectation of vomit and humiliation.

The press release on the latest Home Office proposals ({Protecting the public in a changing communications environment:}) reminds me of that awful parent and child scenario.

The Home Office press release claims that communications data ‘played an essential part in solving the cases and bringing to justice:
• the bomber who survived his attack on Glasgow Airport and who was also responsible for the attempted bombing of Haymarket
• Ian Huntley, following the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman
• a gang responsible for the kidnap of Seven Chinese nationals smuggled into the UK
• Philip Thompson, the “librarian” who ran an international paedophile website
• Sean Mercer, following the murder of schoolboy Rhys Jones.’

Now I would not go along with all of that but it is a respectable and widely held view – and it would ridiculous to deny that data retention has no role in the fight against crime, even if that role is perhaps sometimes exaggerated. What I do have a problem with is a stance that seems to suggest that the government is giving in and letting us have our privacy cornet. They are not actually saying ‘well, have your bloody privacy then – but don’t come running to us if you are sick later’. But that is the tone of some of what is said.

What needs to be remembered is that, if the child that is sick after the ice cream, it is the parent who has to clean up the vomit and it is the parent that suffers any humiliation. I may be being politically naïve but I do think that, if the government really believes that the ‘Big Brother database’ is necessary to keep us all safe then they really are going to get no credit for giving in to our demands for privacy. If all goes well, then they were just being mean in denying it to us for so long. If it all goes horribly wrong then they can hardly say ‘we told you so’ because that would be an admission of a dereliction of duty.

As a registered pedant, the one thing that {i}really{/i} annoys me about the government proposals is defining communications data so as to exclude content. It is fine to say that you are not going to include the particular data that is content on your database but you are risking comparison with Humpty Dumpty if you pretend that e-mail content is not covered by the phrase ‘communications data’. Indeed, if that defintion is part of an exercise in reassuring the public, you might well draw ruder comparisons.

SCL regulars may be surprised by the coverage of the announcement on the site. I felt that the nature of the developments were such that there was a need for some political balance and thus included statements beyond those from the Home Office press release. I do not generally see it as appropriate for the SCL site to cover political issues. Indeed, I cannot wait for SCL members to address the proposals from an IT lawyer’s perspective and encourage you to let me have any material on the relevant law that you produce.

Finally and incidentally, if you have yet to catch it, Ian McDougall’s recent piece on data protection is well worth your attention and includes an interesting aside on the Ian Huntley case mentioned as part of the Home Office’s support for the database (ie the one they aren’t going to have).