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It's a question that has been asked by many particularly since the events of September 2001: how much do they know - and what can they find out - about us? MacDara Conroy examines the antagonism between the interests of the state and commerce and that of the general public regarding the highly sensitive issue of personal information.

Even in this modern age of supposed openness and debate, individual human rights have not been given tremendous importance compared to the interests of the state and of commerce in the formation of information policy. While there has been a marked increase in recent years in freedom of information and the provision of access rights to the general public, such measures often seem quite weak and merely nominal, particularly with respect to legislation that is open to interpretation (as is the case in Ireland), as well as policy proposals and tendencies that have been at the forefront of political debate in the aftermath of September 11th to control information in the interest of national security, especially in the United States. Within all this conflict, one single question remains consistent: can the interests of the state and/or the economy be reconciled with the rights of the people?

In recent times the public has become increasingly more aware of the rights they have (or more precisely, the rights they may have) pertaining to information about or relating to themselves. Technological advancements that began more than thirty years ago, and have exploded exponentially in the last ten, have resulted in a major change in the dynamics of information gathering, retrieval, storage and usage. While it is without doubt that this has been a great period of positive evolution (the Internet in particular being a medium that has given a powerful voice to the disenfranchised), such technological innovations have also facilitated that potential abuse and infringement of individual human rights. While many of such infringements would be undoubtedly unlawful, others might lead us into murkier waters, especially when one comes to such issues as national security and the 'Common Good'. However, are these issues really just straw men used to cover up shady goings-on behind the closed doors of government and Big Business?

In the most general terms, the average individual does not have much to worry about. Other institutions or entities may hold information about ourselves that could be considered sensitive (where we live, how much we earn, etc.) but for the most part this is information that we volunteer. Sir Norman Lindop outlines in a nutshell the trade-off that all participants in today's complex modern society make when he states that "[i]t is in the nature of modern society that the individual, in return for goods and services and in the expectation of continued support, voluntarily gives information about [his-/herself] to those agencies and organisations who can offer ... these commodities", but "the acceptability of the social transaction to the individual must be based on the fundamental confidence which [he/she] has that [his/her] relative impotence will not be exploited". It is only recently that the potential for such exploitation has been greatly facilitated, undermining our confidence in such institutions as banks and governmental departments, and all civil rights groups trumpet on the fact that this can happen without us knowing about it. Brendan Ryan speaks of "the instinct for secrecy that runs through all of our private and public institutions". Maybe because of the fact that we depend on them to keep the secrets they know about us, they are reluctant to let anything slip. Unless, of course, there's something in it for them. For example, the Irish Data Protection Act includes provisions that attempt to prevent the trade of personal data without the permission of the data subject, but that didn't stop the national lifestyle survey conducted by Telecom Šireann (now Eircom) some years ago, which used the infamous device of small print to hide the clause that would prevent the company from sharing the information it collected with others unscrupulously. Some might say that what we don't know won't hurt us, but such an attitude serves to simply sweep the issue under the rug. It would not be unfair to say that governments and other similar institutions of power seemingly would rather things were played by their own rules.

The recent Enron scandal in the United States is an important case in point. With thousands of employees made redundant, affecting tens of thousands of livelihoods, and thousands of shareholders out of pocket, surely the people have a right to know what happened? Surely there should be accountability? Unfortunately the release of documentation has proved to be slow and troublesome, a situation not helped by the current government's seeming lack of concern. This of course could be contributed to the government's (specifically the Bush administration's) instigation of a 'war on terrorism' (which many cynics have derided as a convenient shroud for any number of domestic ills), but could it not also be contributed to the administration's vested interest in the Enron Corporation, which funded Bush's election campaign and conveniently happened to win government energy contracts following his election victory?

But situations where governments and similar institutions have purposefully complicated the legislative powers of information policy to protect their own interests are nothing new, and are certainly not rare. One of the clearest messages from the comparative experience of freedom of information law, according to John Doyle, is that the detail of legislation is a crucial factor; there is, after all, little benefit in having a right to information in principle if this right cannot be reasonably executed in practice. Ambiguity in this respect is precisely what they want, and what we don't. In Ireland, the Official Secrets Act protects our personal data held by governmental departments such as social welfare and revenue from misuse, but it also makes no distinction between this information and that which may simply be politically embarrassing.

To give a more detailed example, in an edition of the Channel 4 television programme the Mark Thomas Product originally broadcast on January 10th 2001, Mr. Thomas and a camera crew attempted to assert their right to access the register of British MEP's interests (who they work for, who makes donations to them, etc.) which - under Annex 1, Article 3 of the Code of Conduct of the Rules of Procedure of the European Parliament (which states that the register must be available to the public, but not how it must be made available) - they were entitled to do so. However the European Parliament, by virtue of the lack of detail in their legislation, did not make this an easy task in practicality. The register is stored in hard copy only in a single office in Brussels, which generally rules out access for those not living in Belgium. What's more, the caretaker of the office at the time forbade the camera crew from filming within the office, forbade the photographing and photocopying of documents, and even forbade the scanning of documents with an electronic pen which converted the text and handwriting into digital form. Only hand-written notes were allowed. There doesn't seem to be any substantial reason why access to this information was restricted so (other than to put off the public from accessing information that they had a right to), especially when following Mr. Thomas' visit, in late November 2000 three people took six man-hour days to copy the entire register out by hand and created a website - - with the information so that anyone with internet access could have it. This tragically comic episode is a more-than-suitable illustration of the worries that civil and human rights activists have that institutions can create legislation that appears to ratify the interests of the individual but actually protects their own. That being said, our right to know should be tempered by reason. While it would be fair not to demand that an average family disclose whether their children have had the combined MMR vaccination, why are the rules different for Tony and Cherie Blair, just because he is the British Prime Minister?

This leads us to the important question of privacy. Should the privacy of the average citizen be more important than that of the businesses that comprise our economy, or the officials we elect to represent us? If we object to governmental secrecy and demand full disclosure, why do we cry foul when the government wants to pry on us? It must be said here that there is a difference between privacy (information that no one else should have the right to access without prior consent) and secrecy (information that is withheld, but may not be private). "Anyone who has ever deal with a state agency or one of the banks", says Brendan Ryan, "will know that their secrecy and your privacy are not the same thing", a point that has been elaborated earlier in this essay. It must also be said that this question is a veritable no-man's-land of conflicting opinion. It goes without saying that national security - especially for larger nations such as Britain and the United States - is of vital importance, but anyone who poses a threat in this respect, be they terrorists or what-have-you, will always find a way to do what they do, whatever legislation is in place. Privacy can be an easy scapegoat for governments looking to shift the blame. (Many have pointed out that US foreign policy was a greater contributing factor to the tensions that resulted in the terror attacks.)

Another major recent issue of concern with the protection of personal privacy was that of the proposed national ID card scheme in Britain, brought to the forefront post-September 11th by the British Home Secretary David Blunkett. It was emphasised by Mr. Blunkett that the police would not have the power to stop people on the street and demand that they produce their ID cards and clarified that the card would be in essence a 'citizen's entitlement card' consolidating such documentation as driving licenses, passports, welfare cards, even banking and credit cards, to make life easier for the average citizen. While this is all well and good on the level of our essentially voluntary participation in society, the crux of the problem is that the proposed scheme is intended to be mandatory, and this has made the blood of civil rights activists boil. Not only that, but a worryingly Orwellian statement came from a spokesman of the Police Federation in support of Mr. Blunkett's announcement: "Whilst the guilty and civil libertarians will scream 'police state', the innocent, the law-abiding public know this makes sense. The world has changed and our security is paramount". While we would all like to see the scum washed from the streets, to paraphrase Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle, should the privacy of everyone be potentially compromised to achieve this? Should individual human rights be infringed upon for the good of the whole? Do the ends justify the means? The fact that the British government has put this proposal 'on the slow track' and is merely planning a consultation exercise over the next few months shows that current popular opinion would dictate a 'no' on this question; the public's concerns for the protection of individual privacy do appear to be important enough to influence their actions on such policy matters. However, the issue has not been shut out completely.

The arguments and concerns outlined here are but the tip of the iceberg. The right of access to, and for the protection of, information has proven difficult to quantify in a world where technology is leaps and bounds ahead of the law, security concerns provoke the need for tighter controls, and in practical terms the importance of individual human rights are universally outweighed by the interests of government and business in the formation of information policy. Fortunately, the advances that have led to the complication of these matters have also made louder the voice of dissent that keeps the establishment - wherever or whoever it may be - on its toes, and reminds the people that there is always more than what meets the eye. It is particularly interesting to note that Sweden, a nation with a long history of freedom of information and a generally open political culture, also has some of the least detailed legislation. Perhaps it is less a legislative problem than a cultural malaise that has led to these disputes in the formation of an all-encompassing information policy.

- MacDara Conroy