Privacy on parade


Next Friday I am speaking at a conference on privacy at Leeds University. I am honoured to be asked and always enjoy going back to the city I lived in for two years when I was nine (I still remember crying myself to sleep when Leeds United lost their FA Cup Final replay to Chelsea and thus ended empty handed a season in which the treble had looked possible).

But I am a bit worried. Not only is the event the day after my annual lecture but it clashes with England’s second World Cup game. What is more the conference boasts a star studded line up of international experts on privacy included former Reith lecturer, Professor Onora O’Neill. But the biggest problem – and the thing on which I need help from readers – is that I have never really got this privacy thing.

For example, while I am happy to be convinced that CCTV doesn’t work (perhaps on the same basis that safety belts make people drive faster and kill more pedestrians), I have never really understood why people object to being filmed when they are in public spaces. Isn’t the whole point about a public space that it is, well, public? As for shopping malls and car parks, I guess if I go on someone else’s property I should be willing to accept that they might want to keep an eye on me.

I’m just as illiberal and obtuse when it comes to the DNA database. After all, I let the authorities (and almost anyone else who asks) know my date of birth, height, eye colour, address etc. What’s so different about my DNA? And if it helps us catch a few criminals or - more importantly – lets some people who have been wrongly convicted go free that seems good to me.

Of course, I want the data on me to be accurate, I want to know who can get access to it and I want to be able to appeal if something on my file is unfair. But beyond that I’m quite relaxed about what information the Government holds. After all the data bases that could have the biggest impact on us - our Google searches, our social networks and our credit rating – are nothing to do with ‘the authorities’.

But I’m sure I am being hopelessly naïve; underestimating the scope for abuse by a state which combines malevolence with incompetence (or was that just the last Government?). So help me out, dear readers. If I don’t perform on the 18th they might make me miss the first half.

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