The biggest threat to liberty is ourselves: the choice is ours

In all the debate about NSA surveillance and wider concerns about data-collection, two crucial trends could be overlooked.

Trend 1 is society’s, especially Western society’s increasing intolerance to risk and uncertainty (growing affluence, though unequally distributed, had created a fear of losing it all), and Trend 2 is a creeping advance of “nudge theory”, a simplified version of behaviour economics, now the norm for most Western governments, whether they are on the right or the left.

I declare two interests: I worked as a senior civil servant directly to two foreign secretaries and one justice secretary, and as a member of the National Criminal Justice Board, with three successive home secretaries. All grappled with the “security vs liberty” paradigm shift of 9/11 and 7/7, that security necessarily must assume top priority. But I also remained committed to what many ministers and civil servants increasingly found irritating, if not detrimental, to government: the unleashing of freedom of information, and the inexorable expectation of transparency that comes with the development of the Internet and social media networks. Under this paradigm, it is only matter of time becomes something becomes public. All that can be managed, if “managed” is still a useful term, is timing.

Missing from much of the media coverage so far is a central tenet of liberal, progressive policy (which this blog espouses): if we act if everybody is a terrorist, the terrorists have won. And linked to this is the view that while terrorism poses an ongoing threat, we stand more to gain from being alert rather than alarmed. Trust is conditional, not absent.

The two trends are interwoven, in that they rely heavily on a paternalistic streak that we cannot shake off, even if we naively think that with a free market comes freedom. An open society requires a proper hinterland, nurtured as carefully as a landscaped garden, particularly a social contract, implicit or explicit, where government, business, civil society and citizens themselves act in collaboration. For our future to be secure and sustainable, it needs to be collaborative.

The way that nudge theory is being used is in danger of lending itself to a virulent ideology that few of us are ready, or want to challenge: we are willing participants of the “libertarian paternalist” paradox that we like the idea of choice yet prefer that it is kept simple for us, and in some respects, made for us. And we are ready for others to put the choice to us, provided we exercise some freedom between the options. On the whole, this makes for an easier, but not a sustainably open and dynamic life. I do not rejoice at this development, and fear its implications.

Whatever the truth or truths at the heart of the Edward Snowden revelations, the unfolding issue rightly highlights that boundaries are not just shifting between the citizen and the State, but between consumers and corporates. The main question is whether we are actively managing those shifting boundaries or drifting towards a new imbalance.

One development that I do find healthy is that the term “consumer” is being seen for what it is: a reductive view of who we are, or could possibly be. An enriched view of ourselves is as citizens, with rights and responsibilities, and different degrees of freedom to act within a society that we ourselves shape, as well as let ourselves be shaped by.

The “securocrats” can only win the argument if the choice is artificially made between security and freedom. We will forever live under the shadow of Hobbes, and will prefer to be as a society over-protected than under- protected. There can be no lasting freedom without security, and no genuine security without freedom. We have to work that much harder at protecting our freedoms. Managing our own sense of insecurity is critical to a measured policies on security.

Even if Edward Snowden becomes a hero to some and a traitor to others, the response of the Establishment – nowadays much broader than the military-industrial complex- will be to justify, not limit, greater powers of surveillance, monitoring and data-collection. Whether this makes the State and its agencies more effective is another matter.

The cause of counter-terrorism is helped by the willing engagement of supportive communities and individuals, and a free, independent and responsible media. Paranoia may bring about sudden injections of funding, and temporary public reassurance, but not a sustainable open and law-abiding society.

Terrorism is judged too much of a chronic threat since 9/11 and 7/7
for breaches of individual rights to become the dominant concern. But there is still enough of a concern that security to be effective requires democratic consent. The security agencies, as with other institutions, operate best when they know their rules of engagement and they can rely on other parts of the system for support. Politicians and media commentators need to be reminded that terrorism thrives not only death and destruction, but on fear and people’s ability to function normally. Every contribution to the public debate impacts on our sense of well-being. If we are alarmist, rather than alert, we erode the very fabric that we profess to defend. The term “terror” can be used too loosely.

I had dinner the other night with a group of Israelis on holiday. They said they had to take in the daily threat to their security, yet still function happily and normally. One of the party who was 67 years old said he had fought in five wars. With dry humour, he said the fifth war was always being fought.

For civil libertarians to win the argument, they need to demonstrate that our security, not just our freedom, is increasingly compromised or damaged by too widely targeted or indiscriminate surveillance. This can be shown over time by the cost of deteriorating trust in institutions and the public support- and funding- they receive. The police in the UK is a good example of how their resources are now too thinly stretched because in good times the political class and media did too little to communicate the benefits of better-funded policing. Effective policing combined with more closely integrated communities is still the best form of defence against terrorism.

We create the monsters that are designed to protect us (the licence that we give, primarily through our elected representatives, to various instruments of the State) and to make our lives more convenient and materially richer (the consumer choices we make that create the information used by companies for marketing and communications).

The monster is not the State or corporate organisations but our own failure to exercise citizenship and to act as responsible consumers, challenging in our day-to-day interactions what we find unacceptable.

We demand both too much and too little. We demand that the State protects us against every conceivable scenario of terrorism, yet balk at the net being consciously or inadvertently widened to capture not just potential terrorist targets but those with one or more degrees of separation from them. We demand too little in that vigilance is not a one-off reaction to a terror outrage or threat, but the relentless scrutiny of the instruments of State and their work. The concern over the balance between State and citizen, and corporate and consumer, will renew calls for a more informed debate about what freedom really means for a global citizen in an interconnected and more technologically driven world.

It can only be a positive development that our attention had be drawn to what happens in our name, whether we will ever know what is really going on.

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3 Responses to The biggest threat to liberty is ourselves: the choice is ours

  1. I couldn’t agree more Lucian. Well said. I’m just about to board a flight so this is short but thanks for the Blog. There is by the way a film titled ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ which also explores what you write about. I highly recommend it. Cheers mate. John.

  2. Ray Corrigan says:


    Whilst agreeing with your broad theme – on disproportionate societal fear, the consequent attraction of simplistic paternalistic securocratic governance and our undermining of fundamental liberties through e.g. trading privacy for convenience with modern communications technologies – I don’t completely subscribe to the notion that the biggest threat to liberty is ourselves.

    At the moment a bigger issue is that the interests of the state and corporate establishments happen to be aligned in relation to big data. The collection and processing of personal data is [wrongly] perceived to be a silver bullet route to solving a range of political issues in the case of the state (e.g. terrorism as you mention) and to financial success in the markets in the case of the private sector. Simplistic and ill-informed though these mindsets are – computers do not magically solve complex political, social, economic, environmental, security or market problems just by chucking money at them or by making them bigger/faster or capable of collecting & processing more data – they fundamentally undermine privacy/liberty interests of the individual.

    Whilst the state is subject to significantly tighter formal checks and balances than the private sector in relation to mass surveillance – the rule of law theoretically precludes the engagement in indiscriminate fishing expeditions in the hope of finding smoking gun evidence – the arguments rolled out by politicians, under the pressure of the modern 24/7 news cycle, relay a persuasive if misleading message to the contrary on preferred policy. We can, it is said, have liberty OR security; security OR privacy; or in more subtle form, we have to BALANCE privacy and security. This is a false dichotomy. As you rightly point out, security and liberty are mutually dependant not opposing forces.

    Additionally we have the powerful but false and, frankly, poisonous ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ meme repeated by William Hague and others in response to the PRISM revelations recently. When you cast the apparently small privacy need of the individual against the national security gain of the state which will seemingly benefit society as a whole, it is impossible to argue the needs of the individual outweigh the common good.

    The ‘nothing to hide…’ argument, however, is based on two huge and erroneous foundations. The first is that it assumes all privacy is only about hiding bad things. Yet without personal privacy/liberty our society would be suffocating – privacy, liberty and the common good are inextricably interlinked and mutually dependent.

    The second is that decimating privacy is the solution to the problem du jour – security, terrorism, serious crime, benefit fraud, NHS patient care etc. It’s possible to prove this thesis wrong mathematically but for the present purposes think of terrorist detection as a needle in a haystack problem. You don’t make it easier to find the needle by throwing more electronic data hay on the stack. Mass data collectors can dig deeply into the digital persona of anyone but don’t have the resources to do so with everyone. The resultant pursuit of false positive leads mean the real bad guys often get lost in the noise, as happened with the 9/11 attackers who were known to US authorities but not considered sufficiently important to intercept. There is no magic computer solution to the rare terrorism problem.

    Don’t get me wrong. Law enforcement and security services need to be able to move with the times, use modern digital technologies intelligently in their work and through targeted data preservation regimes – not a mass surveillance regime – engage in technological surveillance of individuals about whom they have reasonable cause to harbor suspicion. That is not, however, the same as building an infrastructure of mass surveillance.

    This brings us back to the current alignment of state and corporate interests in relation to the architectures of our digital communications technologies. We could architect systems that enhance privacy and facilitate anonymity and net neutrality. We don’t.

    The organisations that construct and operate these technologies have no market or regulatory incentives to build or run them this way. We, I agree, contribute enormously to this state of affairs by trading our privacy for the convenience/ attraction/gratification/access/community/conformity of the services that we use on the internet. We additionally contribute by failing to engage in a meaningful and persuasive way in the public debate on these issues. Our much maligned politicians are busy generalists subject to the constant glare of the media spotlight who really do not understand the technology and we have to be better at explaining it to them.

    The state, likewise, has no incentive either to direct its vast purchasing power towards or to pass regulations to require the building and operation of liberty respecting network architectures. [Neither, in relation to regulations, has it got the required understanding of the technology to do so.] The state establishment, at the highest levels of its requisite parts, has largely bought into the belief that big data is good and their unfettered access to it even better.

    We have to be more active/persuasive/engaged as individuals, citizens, employees, consumers or prosumers in convincing ourselves, our organisations, communities, society, the market and the state that an infrastructure of mass surveillance is not conducive to the public good. As long as the most powerful actors in this calculus, however, the state and the corporate sector continue to share the belief that the continued building and operation of such an infrastructure of mass surveillance is in their mutual interest, it will be a difficult argument to win.



    PS Aside from the Snowden story, on the positive side, if the earlier Bradley Manning Wikileaks leaks revealed anything it was the huge numbers of dedicated US government officials and diplomats working day to day, above and beyond the call of duty, to uphold the values of the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. Having worked yourself at senior level in the civil service, you’ll no doubt be aware of equivalent commitment to democratic values on the part of UK government officials. There area multitude of similarly dedicated individuals in the the state and corporate establishment across the globe. So it can’t be beyond us to evolve the surveillance state that is the internet of 2013 into something more respecting of democratic values and freedoms.

    • admin says:

      An excellent contribution, Ray. Apologies I did not reply at the time. Other matters took over. I am glad I have returned to your comment, and enjoyed reading it again.

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