The Ministry Of Truth

This post isn’t about the absurdity of religious belief, but an absurdity of a different  sort: the right to privacy versus a government agency’s insistence that others can access your data. 

Imagine, if you will, that you’re on the committee of a small local charity. Imagine too that a local government official makes a false, though serious allegation about your charity in a public meeting. Imagine that the public body in question declines to address your concern. You are left then with no option but to make a complaint about it.

Imagine that in retaliation the official in question makes a data protection request (otherwise known as a SAR: ‘Subject Access Request’) to your charity, demanding that it surrender any personal data it has stored about him. The charity responds, as required by law, that it holds no data about the official.

Imagine that the official is dissatisfied with this honest answer, and reports the charity to a government body known as the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) who, like the anti-free speech body they are, start emailing the charity insisting it hands over any personal data they have about the official.

The charity advises the ICO, as they have already advised the official, that they hold no personal data about him. Now Imagine this is not good enough for the ICO, which redefines personal data as any mention of an individual, however oblique, by which he or she might be merely identified.

They continue to demand that the charity provide material (that it doesn’t have) to the official, whom they take to referring to as its ‘customer’; another redefinition when the official is in no sense a ‘customer’ of the charity’s. The ICO nonetheless insists that it ‘appears’ to the official that he might be mentioned in the charity’s committee minutes. This, they say, constitutes ‘personal data’ according to their extremely broad definition of the term.

In fact, the charity’s minutes do not mention the individual by name at all and do not disclose any personal information about him. The minutes do, however, include confidential material completely unrelated to the official. As a result, the charity declines to release the minutes to either party and advises the ICO that it is overextending its powers in insisting the charity ‘must’ do this.

The charity could of course have made public other information about the official, such as his being sanctioned four times recently for remarks made about his colleagues or his current homophobic and anti-immigrant tweets made under his official title (which I won’t mention here for fear of his being identified). But it doesn’t, because it does not store such information.  It is readily accessible online.

Now that you’ve imagined all that, consider the issue at stake in the scenario. How far are government bodies able to monitor and demand access, either for themselves or third parties, the discussions others might have about matters of legitimate and immediate concern to them. The law suggests not at all. The ICO seems to think differently. The charity is only able to free itself from the ICO’s demands by informing them that, if required to investigate the matter further, it will, as the law allows, make a charge for doing so. The ICO is never heard from again. 

All of which suggests The Ministry of Truth is alive and well in 21st century Britain. It is Nineteen Eighty Four and Big Brother is upon us.


Update: Now the UK government is demanding WhatsApp remove its end-to-end encryption from personal messages sent on the platform. This means ordinary, law-abiding people will lose their personal security and privacy, all in the name of some nebulous ‘national security’. The government and police will be able, should they feel the need, to access everyone’s messages.

As if terrorists and paedophiles use WhatsApp in the first place.