A police state ?

I've talked about serendipity a few times before. And a couple of strands in the News today show it at work.

The information commissioner has served notices on 4 polices forces telling them that some information they hold about people is no longer relevant and should be deleted. The BBC has examples of the things he's talking about in their report of the story. I've got a lot of time for the current Information Commissioner - a man called Richard Thomas. He talked about "Sleepwalking into a surveillance society" - and the Today programme where I heard about the police issue, later had another privacy story, this time on CCTV (which you can hear about 20 minutes into their listen again segment) But that's not the serendipitous thing I was thinking about.  

The government's ID card scheme tends to raise the hackles of people who fret about the surveillance Society or "the database state"*. There is a fine line between having a view about the use of IT (quite proper for someone working at a company like Microsoft) and party politics (which should stay out of a work blog). So I'll just say I found it interesting when the news also reported that both candidates for the leadership of the Liberal party say they will lead civil disobedience by refusing to carry the card (one has it on his web site, the other doesn't). I can't remember a major party's leader taking such a position on any kind of legislation, however unpopular.

I'm curious to know if people think I should or shouldn't use this blog to talk about my views on privacy, protection of the individual on line and similar themes. Commenting is only a click away.



* No-2-ID defines the "Database state" as "'the tendency to try to use computers to manage society by watching people." and cites the following examples:

  • ID interrogation centres, for passports and ID cards
  • ePassports that help collect data about your travel for...
  • International eBorders schemes that exchange Passenger Name Record information with foreign countries as well as collecting them
  • Recording of all car journeys, using Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR)
  • 'Entitlement cards' as part of or linked to the ID scheme, logging use of public services
  • Centralised medical records without privacy
  • Biometrics in schools - fingerprinting children as young as 4 or 5
  • 'ContactPoint', a database collecting sensitive information on every child
  • Fingerprinting in pubs and bars - landlords forced to monitor their patrons
  • A greatly expanded National DNA Database (NDNAD)
  • New police powers to check identity
  • Increasing Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks for employees and volunteers
  • Businesses under pressure to verify ID of staff and customers with the government
  • Comments (6)

    1. Anonymous says:

      I blogged yesterday about the database stated and referred to No2ID including their example of International

    2. James ONeill says:

      Thanks for that. A lot of sense there.

      What I’m allowed to say by Microsoft is pretty much anything I want, provided I keep an eye on things like the laws of libel.

      What it’s proper to put on a work blog is something else – I wouldn’t put "Vote for X" here that’s party politics. But something which has a political dimension can be OK….

      I’m interested to know if people who’ve been  reading this blog, and especially the IT professionals who Microsoft pays me to communicate with – are interested in debate about privacy issues, or if they’d rather have more how-to articles for server 2008. I’m not going to cross privacy off my list of things to talk about, but I’ll talk about it less if people tell me that’s not something they’re interested in.

    3. James ONeill says:

      At risk of repeating myself. A lot of sense there too 🙂

      You’re right that this isn’t a democracy (can you have a graphocracy ? ) , but at the same time I don’t want to drive readers away.

      As for being a PR shill well … I wouldn’t be working at Microsoft if I didn’t see the world more-or-less the Microsoft way. Not everything about Microsoft is perfect and where I think *those* bits are interesting I’ll talk about them … which doesn’t mean getting all the dirty laundry out in public (the ins and outs of a change to one of our employment policies would make a null read for any non Microsoft person).

      Hopefully readers will read what I have to say understanding that. What some people find hard to grasp is I can say what I want (subject to consequences of course)

      I’m about to go on holiday and I might use the time to write an opinion piece and sound out a few people before posting.

    4. Melissa says:

      What you’re allowed to say on your blog isn’t really up to your readers, it’s up to the company that pays you for what you write.

      But I’m all in favor of your blog going into "political" territory.  Add a disclaimer if you like, saying "These opinions are my own, not Microsoft’s, but ought to be Microsoft’s too if I had anything to do with it!".

      In any case, I don’t really believe that you can divide discussion meaningfully into political and nonpolitical talk.  In just about everything you say, there are implied value judgements about what is good and what is bad.

      And if you think the British public is being hoodwinked, railroaded, or whatever, and the stakes matter a lot, I would argue that you have  an obligation to be as vocal as you can about it in every venue where you stand some chance of being heard.   At the office, at home, on your blog, to friends, to family, etc.  Don’t convince yourself that you can’t or shouldn’t do anything — instead figure out just how much you *can* do and do it.

      But no matter what you say, stay calm and rational.  Try as hard as you can to *understand* the people you disagree with.  Simple explanations like "They’re just stupid!" may be emotionally satisfying to you and people on your side, but your goal shouldn’t be to preach to the choir, it should be to win people over to your way of thinking, and to do that you have to understand what their viewpoint is and what their motivations really are.  You also need to understand how they currently see you, because your first step in communicating may be overcoming their misconceptions about your attitude, agenda, etc.

    5. Melissa says:

      I would argue that your blog should reflect your voice.  Your blog *isn’t* and shouldn’t be a democracy — editorial choices are yours to make, and it is your ability to make good ones that make or break your blog.  It doesn’t hurt to understand what your (current) readers are enjoying, but I think it’s much better to ask the question "Hey folks, what did you think of my coverage of X?" rather than "Should I cover Y?".  

      In the former case, the readers will be informed by knowing what it’s like to have you cover a particular topic, whereas the latter requires them to make a projection of what it *would* be like, and people are notoriously bad about predicting what they might enjoy (see Daniel Gilbert’s_Stumbling on Happiness_).   For example, if you asked me whether airports or Microsoft’s travel procurement process were hot topics for IT professionals, I would have said "no", but I’ve very much enjoyed reading those posts.   There may also be things I have read that I don’t currently appreciate but might become relevant to me at some future point in time, thus my current opinion on what I’ve read doesn’t provide a completely accurate measure of its ultimate value to me.

      Finally, even if not everyone is interested, the cool thing about a blog is that people don’t have to read every article, and the ones they do read don’t all need to be life changing.  If it is important *to you*, cover it.  Even if not everyone cares about that passion, they’ll still know you better.  In your position, I’d worry that some of my readers might feel that the blog is somewhat "manufactured", that they’d see me as a shill giving the Microsoft PR spin on a variety of things.  One of the things I like about your blog is that the content is varied enough that it helps in dispelling that notion, perhaps not entirely (because that would be impossible given that Microsoft pays you to write it), but enough.

      So, I’d encourage you to write a true opinion piece where you lay out what you believe and why, and see how people react.  So far, what you have said looks like it’s written very carefully to avoid stirring up conflict, disagreement or debate.  From what I’ve gathered, what you’ve said so far is "Oh well, police state here we come (good/bad?), but a few (other) people seem poised to take a stand (good/bad?), and maybe the technology won’t really work properly (good/bad?)".   If that’s all you’ll ever say, I’d say not to bother because you aren’t really saying much.   But I hope you’ll choose to say more.

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