12 April 2009

On Liberty - Safety in Numbers

John Stuart Mill's seminal 'On Liberty' was published 150 years ago.

Mill asserted the sovereignty of the individual over 'majority tyranny' on condition an individual's actions caused 'no harm' to others.

It is the definition of what constitutes harm that has concerned liberals ever since and it led Mill to some very anti-democratic conclusions.

No principle or ideology is uncontentious and when libertarian fundamentalists hold a principle as sancrosanct, this is where they stray into dangerous territory. Neither ID cards, DNA databases or CCTV is all bad (or all good). In essence these technological advances are neutral - they can be used for good or bad - as I have been trying to point out, it is access and control that are important.

I think the recent video of a policeman assaulting Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protest demonstrates how universality of control can make video surveillance a very good social tool for good - as this CIF article argues. My motto on this is 'safety in numbers' - when information is available to all it is more likely to protect than harm. Common sense dictates that no one piece of information is seen as conclusive but in conjunction with a range of information it is more likely to prove innocence than guilt (think DNA, CCTV, mobile phone, internet records combined -just one could prove that someone was not present at the scene of a crime, and yet several are needed pointing to guilt and this strengthens the likelyhood that the evidence is correct).

It is right to say that the slogan 'if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear' is a poor defence of surveillance. But not for the reasons opponents of CCTV, ID cards etc try to make out. We all have something to hide and maybe even fear however minor the indiscretion, but this does not mean that bringing these indiscretions out into the open is a bad thing.

At the moment, punishment for lawbreaking tends to be overly severe in an attempt to 'deter' and haphazard targeting leads to the usual disadvantaged groups unfairly bearing the brunt of society's ire. If detection were much more likely, punishments could be much more realistic for the lesser crimes that most commit. The middle class would not like being treated like everyone else which explains the hostility of the Daily Mail, Express et all, and also the hostility of middle class bloggers, but we should not fall for that distortion of big brother that Orwell inadvertantly made seem overly threatening. Human rights should mean protection for all, not just for the powerful.


  1. "but we should not fall for that distortion of big brother that Orwell inadvertantly made seem overly threatening"

    You admit you love Big Brother.

  2. I think Animal Farm was Orwell's best book.

    Orwell's 1984 was written about 1948 - it was about how he hated his job of distorting news while working for the BBC during the war, it was about the sensationalist violent films lapped up by the masses that were coming from Hollywood that he found so distasteful, it was about the failure of the Soviet Union to truly find communism and instead descend into totalitarianism, it was about snitching on your neighbour (ironic now we know Orwell fed info to the secret service on communists he knew).

    Orwell imagined a technology that could spy on homes through our tv sets and how this could be used to control the opposition (note only the middle class were affected), but the obsessive focus on this aspect of the story is actually where we go wrong. I think Orwell would have supported CCTV, he would have seen the benefits of a DNA database, he might have been concerned by the internet, but ultimately he would have acknowledged the benefits outweigh the downside. If you really think that CCTV is about the government controlling the middle class political opposition in this country then you have a very vivid imagination indeed. This Labour government have actually increased freedom in this country. There has never been a government so criticised for actually fairly minor errors. Our Tory dominated press always give Tory governments an easy ride. If Orwell was alive today (and remember he was a socialist) he would have been more concerned about that distortion of news than CCTV on the high street.

  3. Trooper Thompson18/4/09 12:15 pm

    "I think Orwell would have supported CCTV, he would have seen the benefits of a DNA database"

    You can think what you like, mate. Doesn't change the fact it's nonsense.

    1984 wasn't just about 1948, it was a nightmare vision of the future. Orwell was pessimistic, especially as his health failed.

    The predictions of the book are more and more true, especially under Labour who truly believe in totalitarian government.

    As for snitching on your neighbour, under Labour, we're encouraged to dig through neighbours' bins - did you see the poster? - This is quite different to what Orwell did.

    "This Labour government have actually increased freedom in this country"

    Ludicrous. But then, to Labour, 'freedom is slavery', right?

    "fairly minor errors"?

    How many dead Iraqis do you class as a 'fairly minor error'?

  4. "fairly minor errors" If you remember the Tory press (and Tories in general) supported Labour over Iraq (indeed encouraged the invasion and support for Bush) And WMD or no WMD the Tories and their press friends still think the invasion a good idea.

    I was talking about the furore of fairly innocuous emails the Tories have hacked into. I am more worried about the fact the Tories have such control over govt departments information while in opposition and are willing to exploit it for full political gain.

  5. You are obsessed by the tories. They are your only measuring stick, a stick which doubles as a crutch.

    You need the tories. Without them, you have no arguments. Without them, you'd need to face up to what your party has done, the crimes they have committed.

    The false left vs right paradigm is all you have.

  6. But, Neil, so as not to be wholly negative, you are half right: the tories are scum. Well done for spotting it. All you need to do now is realise that Labour are the same if not worse, and you will be at the beginning of truth.

  7. Neil,

    You are correct in stating that things like cctv cameras are neutral in and of themselves and that the access and control is the issue. You then go on to use the incident of Ian Tomlinson as an an example of how things "should" work.

    But there's a problem with your argument: The brutal attack on Tomlinson was captured on a hand held video camera by a member of the public - at personal risk of arrest, I might add. Of the cctv footage there surely was of the incident I have yet to see any. Remind me: Who controls the cctv cameras in London's streets?