Civil liberties - The Big Brother House in Westminster

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New Labour likes to vaunt its modernising project--particularly when it comes to the rights of the individual. Yet its obsession with the right wing agenda--particularly crime, benefits, asylum seekers and now terrorism--pushes it in the direction of strengthening the state and eroding civil liberties.

Last month Tony Blair promised a new white paper, the eleventh piece of criminal justice legislation since Labour came to office in 1997. It would ditch the double jeopardy rule that prevents people being tried twice for the same crime--even though the Macpherson inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence rejected the move.

There would be a new intermediate tier of justice, where a judge sitting with two lay magistrates tried cases too serious to be tried by magistrates on their own, in practice imposing even tighter restrictions on the right to jury trial.

The home secretary, David Blunkett, has revived the idea of introducing a computerised identity card--though in typical New Labour speak these are called 'entitlement cards'. Typically, it was announced that the new card would be tested on asylum seekers and their dependants first. Their card contains a mini-microchip holding such information as a complete set of fingerprints, a digital photograph, home address, date of birth, family members and serial numbers. The Home Office also wants to plan for a 'national compulsory card' which will replace passports and driving licences.

Access to computer information also underlies New Labour's other recent attempt to undermine civil liberties. It put a draft order to parliament to allow a wide range of governmental departments, as well as all local authorities, fire authorities and a long list of quangos, to snoop on private communications. The draft order would allow them to compel telephone companies and internet service providers (ISPs) to hand over detailed personal information about individual users. None of them would have to apply to the courts. Conducting surveillance operations would be their decision and their decision alone. The legal checks to avoid abuse would be minimal. The commissioner in charge of 'interception of communications', Lord Justice Swindon Thomas, has an office of two people--not enough, he complained, to open the mail.

Such was the fierce opposition from all sides that within days David Blunkett beat a retreat, saying that a 'full consultation on the issues raised' would now take place. So a climbdown--but for how long? The draft order was made under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which became law in 2000. RIPA provided the home secretary with new powers of interception specifically aimed at ISPs.

ISPs would be compelled to incorporate computer technology that security services would use to monitor the flow of information. All privacy on the net would be lost. Individual users would also be obliged to surrender the code for any encrypted messages on pain of being sent to jail for up to two years. This would have reversed the traditional burden of proof, in which you are presumed innocent until found guilty.

Surveillance is not restricted to state bodies--it is now central to industry. Every time you use a supermarket loyalty card, or switch on cable TV or access your favourite website, someone somewhere is monitoring you.

There are two and a half million CCTVs dotted around Britain. Some, notably in the London borough of Newham, are now being linked up to a facial recognition system which will track criminals. It doesn't work (as even the police admit). Nor is Britain alone in increasing electronic surveillance of the internet. It is also a battleground between countries which accuse each other of stealing commercial secrets. Blunkett's plans followed the European Parliament's surprise decision to give EU governments sweeping powers to monitor telephone, e-mail and internet communications.

New Labour, having shed its socialist credentials, is now throwing overboard its democratic commitments. The attack on civil liberties is intimately bound up with its desire to strengthen the system's ability to exploit. The more it can track its citizens, the more it hopes to snuff out organised resistance. But in the end millions of us taking action on the streets and in the workplace are more powerful than the most powerful surveillance controls any Big Brother can dream up.