Accessing our information: are we asking the right question?

The rather farcical Where’s Wally/Waldo–style arm’s-length manhunt that is underway to locate Edward Snowden is, perhaps intentionally, deflecting from the important topic of snooping. But I think people are missing the important question.

The question being asked is:

Are the authorities breaking the law in accessing our information in the name of security?

The question that should be being asked, in my opinion, is:

Should the authorities be allowed to operate above the law in accessing our information in the name of security?

The problem is, the authorities have done little to engender our trust in the past. The police are never out of the news for their corruption and cover-ups, alleged and otherwise. The Stephen Lawrence case is the most recent example. Before that, phone hacking, Ian Tomlinson, Jean Charles de Menezes, the list goes on.

And in government, MPs are rarely out of the news for their own indiscretion: expenses scandals, selling of information, employment of relatives, cash for questions, their all too cosy relationships with the media.

And this behaviour, this reputation tarnishes the entirety of the security services. Few people nowadays trust that their information will be used in a responsible and positive way, and so there is uproar at the very idea that MI5 or GCHQ might go beyond the confines of the law in an attempt to thwart terrorist activity.

I wonder whether people’s perceptions of the security services’ use of data would be different if operational policing were better trusted, or if those that were responsible for the government of our country operated in a transparent and honest way.

My view is that if the public-facing sections of the authorities behaved in an honest manner, we would have little issue with the security services’ use of our data. Instead of asking whether they’d operated within the law, we’d be asking the extent to which they’d thwarted terrorist activity.

Perhaps this is a naive post, and that I’m ignoring the more fundamental rights we have to privacy. Perhaps. Only you can judge.

Tying expenditure to income: emotional blackmail

The idea of government earmarking specific items of income for specific items of expenditure is, to me, preposterous. In the most recent example, George Osborne today confirmed that £10m per year from the fines imposed on the banks for their part in the Libor interest rate fixing would be made available to help war veterans injured in recent military campaigns. A similar example of earmarking previously cited by George was one that confirmed that not a penny of RBS bosses’ bonuses would be funded by the taxpayer.

(As an aside, the spending sums being spoken about here are trivial: £10m equates to 37 pence per year for each UK household, which comes down further when you factor in the fact that the majority of HMRC’s tax intake comes from businesses.)

As a taxpayer, I’m unable to request for example that my corporation tax, VAT, employer’s and employee’s PAYE and income tax is only used for NHS care and that it is not used for the purposes of war.

The balancing off of receipts against expenditure is nothing more than emotional blackmail. We don’t hear, for example, how the legitimate tax owing that has been written off for numerous large corporations has reduced the NHS’s ability to provide primary care for children. That wouldn’t make a good headline now, would it?

The issue is further clouded by the fact that HM government owns 81.14% of RBS, which was fined £390m in relation to the Libor scandal.

So please don’t patronise me, George. Talk about savings; talk about income. But don’t tie the two together, there’s a good chap.