Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Technology and insidious authoritarianism

Here's a comment I made on a recent Guardian story about bugging etc. As soon as I used the word "bugging" I recognized that this is not an absolutely new phenomenon. I worry about what happens when you put two trends together:

a) the authoritarian impulses of ordinary people. This includes the impetus to make more and more laws, and more criminal offences (I think 3000 new offences were created under New Labour), but also modern attempts to control what people say and think, which seem to be in vogue in recent years.

b) at the same time, advances in technology mean that it is a thousand times easier to do things far more intrusive than bugging phones. Security services can look at emails, texts, records and content of phone calls, on a massive scale. They can certainly amass more information about the people of the UK than a thousand spies and analysts would ever have the time to look at.

This is why the discussion is even more relevant today. It would be quite easy to put in place a database of information about people that could be plundered at will.  All we then need is a sufficiently authoritarian government - and they could misuse it horribly. We'd instantly have something worse than the frightening Stasi of East Germany.

We've been quite confident that such a thing couldn't happen in the UK. But the further the Cold War recedes into history, the less people remember about the benefits of free speech (and one or two other freedoms), and the less we teach our children, the more political of whom now enthusiastically spout about what kinds of speech we should forbid - lest particular victim groups be offended. We have ridiculous new "hate speech" laws, as though hate were something that could even be defined, let alone measured or verified.

People are getting more and more confident in the intensely enjoyable game of policing language and thought.  And the technology is there ready to spy on us. Unfortunately, this isn't paranoid, it's the way things are going.

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