There is currently much public ambivalence about privacy and surveillance. People on the street typically tell interviewers, either that they have nothing to hide and welcome protection from criminals, or that, like David Davis, they fear the encroachment of the Big Brother Society. Often both emotions lurk in the same breast.

 

This situation needs to be understood in its long historical context, beginning with Matthew Arnold standing on Dover Beach listening to the “melancholy long withdrawing roar” of institutional Anglicanism. Though the majority today seem to harbour religious attitudes, there is little in the way of affiliation or commitment. Accordingly, we inhabit a public space of secular consumerism, a world from which meaning continues to drain.

 

The most important corollary of this is what I have called elsewhere the great lie of outwardness. The outside world, dominated by the irresistible currents of popular culture (football, the X-Factor, Heroes, Grey’s Anatomy, pop music, Big Brother series 9), has not only captured schools and our children, but is routinely invited into our living rooms, where our household gods have been replaced on their altar by the enormous, digital television screen.

 

Everywhere privacy is in retreat. This is not just a matter of surveillance. It is the precondition for surveillance. While individuals are accorded every privilege as consumers, they experiences an interminable identity crisis, commonly defining themselves with the coarse categories favoured by the Left (black, female, gay, disabled, this or that ‘class’).

 

Such abstraction is the characteristic weakness of the modern mind. It is an excuse for imprecision: abstract ideas are not used precisely. ‘Inclusive terms’ – e.g. partner – are more general, abstract and vague. The modern mind is enfeebled by abstraction, infatuated by categories. The categorical approach to people is like handwriting in which everything is written in capitals. This sort of thing is the small change of contemporary intellectual ferment — if ferment is not putting it too strongly.

 

With real culture under threat, in the universities the humanities are in retreat, defending themselves against the inexorable advance of science and technology by resorting to “theory” — typically psychoanalysis, Marxism or some debased form of anthropology. In the arts, especially the visual and plastic arts, there is paralysis over the sheer definition of what counts as art (everything). Religion similarly is fazed by the dark vacuum populated and popularised by the new machinery.

 

This, then, is the context in which, even in a democracy, galloping technology is placing in the hands of governments daunting powers of control over individual lives. One does not have to have anything to hide — and who does not? — to feel that the space formerly accorded to privacy and individuality is under extreme threat.

 

Fortunately, governments are highly incompetent, allergic to computers, prone to losing all this individual data and unimaginative. But this state of affairs could change overnight in ways which are alarming to consider.

 

Governments are good only at extracting taxation. They are bad at owning and running things. (Almost anything works better in the private sector.) Awareness of privacy as an issue comes at a most delicate moment in our political evolution, when both ends of the spectrum seem unable to grapple with the underlying issue: whether or not, in a democracy, the gradual increase of state control is reversible. This is what makes taxation such a symbolic issue for the twenty-first century.

 

It is difficult to have confidence in public debate, given the level of information about, for instance, DNA. Even in the House of Commons this seems to be treated as something akin to a fingerprint, rather than a comprehensive account of an individual’s ancestry and, potentially, his or her entire psychological and physical profile, rather than merely “identity”.

 

The case against surveillance, then, draws on some spirited form of resistance to technological totalitarianism. This is not to deny the value to us all of many of the newer measures of fighting crime and securing court convictions. But beyond the precious gains in rape cases, there lies an empty plateau of “freedom” in which we are hemmed in by hostile spiritual forces unwittingly unleashed by naive governments. Already, political correctness has enormously extended the grip of conformism. The homogenisation of society seems too high a price to pay for marginal gains in security.

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