Government responses to two outwardly unrelated bits of EU policy go a long way to explain what it really thinks about the War on Terror and the rights of individual citizens.
At present, the government collects data on passenger movements across UK borders. This is gathered from sources such as travel agents and airlines, and is handed over to the Home Office through the e-borders programme.
According to the Telegraph, it includes personal information such as a passenger's name, address, itinerary, meal preference, sex, credit card numbers and details of their travel companions.
The Home Office admits it has collected this level of detail on 54 million people since the launch of e-borders in January 2005. There are also plans afoot to extend the e-borders scheme to some internal travel within the UK - between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
For once, the EU appears to be on the side of the angels, as it has asked the UK to restrict the use of "Passenger Name Record" data to fighting terrorism and organised crime. In this it is supported by a recent Lords report calling on the government to draw up a list of specific list of offences that would be covered by the e-borders programme – with officials not allowed to use information to probe any further.
As expected, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith rejected this on the grounds that such rules would be too narrow and the government preferred to retain the ability to use the data to pursue “any serious crime”. Given the gov's record on RIPA, this presumably could also include dog-fouling and failing to fill your bins properly.
Meanwhile, in another story, also in today’s Telegraph, the government appears to be resisting EU suggestions that the fight against terror could be enhanced if security agencies such as MI5 and MI6 were prepared to share data with their European counterparts.
Under these plans, all countries would feed secret information into a central intelligence unit so that any member state can use it.
Clearly there are pros and cons to such a scheme. The British rightly object that such a database would be as secure as the weakest access point to it – an argument that oddly doesn’t seem to hold much weight with the Home Office when it comes to its own plans for a centralised UK database containing details of all citizens.
Still, its nice to see what this government really means when it comes to “joined up thinking”.
Terror is such an enormous threat that centuries old civil liberties must be sacrificed and overturned within the UK. Anyone who fails to buy into the government’s latest hare-brained scheme for fighting terror is obviously at some remove a closet collaborator. At least, that appeared to be the argument when it came to “42 days”.
When someone else has a scheme that might actually be useful in combating terror, the burden of proof is suddenly reversed – and the Government’s answer is an instant Gaullist “Non”.
When it comes to collecting our personal data, however, terror just isn’t enough. Of course it would be useful to store personal data in order to fight terror. But it would also help the fight against organised crime. And serious crime. And anything else that happens to occur to Whitehall at the time. ®