David Davis: The Faustian Trade-Off Between Security and Liberty

Despite Benjamin Franklin’s wise advice that those who would give up liberty for security deserve neither, the public seems more than happy to trade a little liberty for the rhetoric of greater security. That at least was the conclusion of The Economist in a recent article entitled Mary Poppins and Magna Carta based on a survey carried out in June by YouGov PLC.

Successive governments have conned us that by giving up just a little more freedom each time they ask, we somehow increase our collective security. This has been going on for decades now, and the effects really are becoming noticeable – especially to people like me who live offshore and just visit “onshore” Big Brother countries on rare occasions.

As restrictive new laws are brought in, uses for them tend to multiply fast. For example, in March this year it emerged that local councils in the UK had been using surveillance powers intended for deployment against terrorists and serious criminals, to spy on people trying to game the school-admissions system.

As David Davis, the British Member of Parliament who recently resigned his seat to make his point, says:

The government presents these issues as Faustian trade-offs between security and liberty. The reality is that draconian measures rarely make us safer and often jeopardise security. That is not a trade-off. It is a con…

British premier Gordon Brown has indeed done just this. He claims that new authoritarian powers for the state are “guarantors of liberty.” Should we believe him? Should we believe George W. Bush when he claims that the USA PATRIOT Act guarantees our liberty?

For a start, says David Davis, look at the British national ID card scheme. Not to mention its overseas equivalents such as America’s REAL ID Act, that effectively seeks to create a USA national ID card by standardising state ID cards. There is no convincing evidence that terrorists are using fake identities – the September 11th hijackers used their own, legally obtained US IDs to board the planes, and the national ID card schemes already in place in Germany and Spain did nothing to prevent terrorist plots there either.

The ID cards common in European countries, however, are much less dangerous to our liberties than those proposed by Blair, Brown and their cronies. Traditional ID cards use a limited amount of data which remains broadly in control of the card bearer. They are not “swiped” by terminals linked to a national database wherever you go, while the British ID card will be.

Promises that sensitive personal data will be carefully protected also look rather limp. Last November, CDs containing 25 million child-benefit records were reported lost. On June 12th a civil servant was suspended after top-secret papers about terrorism were found on a train; on the same day another set of documents—this time on financial fraud—turned up on a different train! Five days later it emerged that a laptop stolen from the office of a cabinet minister may have contained confidential documents, violating data-protection rules.

Yet, the British public, according to The Economist/YouGov survey, trust the government a lot more than private firms with their personal data. Odd… since more than half of British consumers have signed up voluntarily for supermarket loyalty schemes which track their purchasing habits down to the last bar of soap.

Privacy is a basic human right, and you should think very carefully every time you are asked for personal information. Give out personal information on a strict “need to know” basis. If a few companies don’t want to do business with you that way, or try to bribe you with a free toaster, just live without their services. In the long run you’ll be glad you did.

To finish, here’s another thought from Ben Franklin that seems very appropriate to our themes of freedom, wealth and privacy: Sell not virtue to purchase wealth, nor Liberty to purchase power.

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