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Can lobbying colour our whole UK democracy?

One of the really insistent questions raised throughout the Convention of Modern Liberty one year ago was the one Anthony Barnett signalled in his opening invitation to participate: " What is the problem to which the database state and the surveillance society is... the solution?"
Rosemary Bechler
11 March 2010

One of the really insistent questions raised throughout the Convention of Modern Liberty one year ago was the one Anthony Barnett signalled in his opening invitation to participate: " What is the problem to which the database state and the surveillance society is... the solution?"

I made this the first real article in the CML book because it struck me that the rest of the book (and the event itself) is really a set of different attempts at an answer, coupled with some early exploration of what to do about it. Anthony kicks off with a list of potential candidates. Helena Kennedy puts it differently - "What do they put in the water in the Home Office? ". Simon Jenkins asks what happens to perfectly reasonable liberal types when they get into high office... etc. etc.

Maybe Simon Jenkins gets close to the truth with the shocking passing reference to the fact that, 'We now apparently spend more money on surveillance equipment of all sorts than on arms." If you have quarter of an hour this week, I recommend that you listen to this aptly named, undersung BBC 4 radio programme called Thinking Allowed on the theme of "military futurology" while it's accessible.  

The conversation involves Matt Carr who recently wrote an article for Race and Class entitled,'Slouching towards dystopia: the new militarism', and Stephen Graham, whose bookCities Under Siege: the new military urbanism  is shortly to be published by Verso. The speakers agree that an amazing degree of 'pessimism' seems now to characterise the work of military futurologists in the various university departments which, following the pioneer faculty in Houston, have become dedicated to an endeavour which they also agree is highly influenced by science fiction writers, particularly, a sub-genre they refer to as cyberpunk science fiction.

Analysing the threats of the future has moved on considerably since the days in which DARPA counted nuclear warheads, thought the unthinkable, and assessed the survivability of the USA if the Cold War turned hot. Now they are much more concerned about 'urbanism, demographics and cultural and social trends'. So now the same technofiliac obsession with something that will maintain US and western hegemony in the world is turned towards a much more elusive enemy.

Who can that be? Well, this is where the conversation takes a turn that makes 'pessimism' sound distinctly euphemistic.  It circles round and round a similar question to Anthony's - why are cities regarded as so threatening - one' s own cities that is, not foreign cities? It appears that the new danger comes from urban insurrection, not confined to the far-off 'feral cities' associated in this discourse with the southern hemisphere, but much closer to home. In the global economic downturn, it is pointed out, 'homeland security' has become one of the few huge new growth areas for US, British and Israeli companies, thanks to the cosy relationship between companies selling simulations, think tanks and the military.

This merging of military and policing scenarios, it seems, has long since left the pages of fiction. The Liverpool police, we are told, will be among the first to adopt their own surveillance drones as modelled in Afghanistan and piloted there from the outskirts of Las Vegas. Kent police are also the proud new owners of similar drones deployed this time to survey the English channel. And apparently the London Olympics will be a 'massive test ground' for a whole slew of the security technologies which have emerged from military futurology 'thinking'. No wonder they seem so excited by these Olympics...

We begin to see, I think, a very clear and chilling picture of what is happening to UK democracy as a direct result of its disastrous military alliances... Next week, as it happens, there is the launch of a rather different project which also deploys 'futures thinking'. For this group of thinkers, it is also obvious that a radical claiming back of people power is on the cards.  More of this project here on openDemocracy shortly. But in what Stephen Graham calls, ' the transformation of Western militaries into high-tech urban counter-insurgency forces', my point is that these campaigners for a better democracy just happen to be on the other side. Is this scary undeclared war already changing the way we live now?

Stop the secrecy: Publish the NHS COVID data deals


To: Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

We’re calling on you to immediately release details of the secret NHS data deals struck with private companies, to deliver the NHS COVID-19 datastore.

We, the public, deserve to know exactly how our personal information has been traded in this ‘unprecedented’ deal with US tech giants like Google, and firms linked to Donald Trump (Palantir) and Vote Leave (Faculty AI).

The COVID-19 datastore will hold private, personal information about every single one of us who relies on the NHS. We don’t want our personal data falling into the wrong hands.

And we don’t want private companies – many with poor reputations for protecting privacy – using it for their own commercial purposes, or to undermine the NHS.

The datastore could be an important tool in tackling the pandemic. But for it to be a success, the public has to be able to trust it.

Today, we urgently call on you to publish all the data-sharing agreements, data-impact assessments, and details of how the private companies stand to profit from their involvement.

The NHS is a precious public institution. Any involvement from private companies should be open to public scrutiny and debate. We need more transparency during this pandemic – not less.


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