On the 27th of March next year all UK households will be compelled by law to fill in a Census.

I admit that I get more worked up about this sort of thing more than most people. The arrogant presumption that we are somehow state property, the compulsion to complete it & the sheer impertinence of the questions being asked are all things that stick in my craw.

With all else that’s going on – ID cards, mass surveillance, not to mention badly written laws made to put minority interests ahead of the citizenry – it seems that the census hasn’t yet appeared on the radar of most civil liberty campaigners.

However, as with previous years the number of questions has increased (34 in 1991, 41 in 2001). This year, there will be 56 questions prying into every aspect of your life.

Ostensibly a census is about resource allocation, but if that was the case the only question the government can legitimately ask is “How many people live in your house?“.

Gender is irrelevant as this is more or less going to be an even split. Birth rate isn’t going to suddenly shoot up so there’s also need to ask about the number of children.

I’d argue that even this one question isn’t really required as any areas which have resource problems can be identified more readily (and I’d argue more accurately) by deriving the information from other sources – class sizes, waiting times at hospital etc.

Some of the questions being asked

Further details of the census can be found here.

Many of the questions being asked certainly do not have anything to do with resource allocation.

For the first time you will be compelled to disclose any other passports you may have. Also, if you’ve previously lived out of the country you will also have to say when you came into the country and for how long you intend to stay.

You will also be compelled to give the names and addresses of any guests you have staying over on the evening of the census, as well as their sex and date of birth – which has led some to call this the “Snooper’s census“.

Compulsion

You are required by law to answer these questions, and if you choose not to answer these questions – questions which in my opinion the government has no business asking – you will have committed a criminal offence and receive a stiff penalty.

Worse still, the contract for processing the data has been handed to the arms manufacturer and surveillance company Lockheed Martin, which has already raised some eyebrows.

'One nation under CCTV' taken by Mayu ;PAnyone who has spoken to me for more than a few minutes knows that I am very much a civil libertarian at heart, and believe that the so called compromise between freedom and security is one of the worst kinds of politically motivated false dichotomy.

Having grown up under the threat of IRA bombings and soviet nuclear annihilation, I honestly don’t feel terribly threatened by a bunch of disgruntled religious fundamentalists – despite government assurances that they are they deadliest thing since the Ebola virus.

The UK government’s latest crackpot plan to spy on its population – the announcement that along with monitoring all Internet usage, phone and SMS communication (including content via deep packet inspection) that they plan to monitor social networking sites such as Facebook comes as no real surprise, but has made a bit of a splash in the tech press and even made it onto the BBC.

The government has of course made the usual assurances that it is necessary to combat the threat posed by [terrorists/criminals/paedophiles/tax dodgers (delete as appropriate)] and that they won’t be looking at the content – just who is talking to who (bringing us back into the Stalinist purge era fallacy of  “guilt by association“).

However, other than being an example of the ongoing salami slicing of the privacy and hard won freedoms necessary for the proper running of a healthy democracy, I don’t believe that Facebook monitoring or even Streetview are in themselves the greatest threats to our life and liberty. Certainly when compared to all the other countless and more sinister intrusions into our liberties that the government is undertaking.

Indeed, the coverage this is getting may start to draw people’s attention to the fact that these networks are public and indeed anything that you put on the internet should be thought of as publishing. It is quite likely that it won’t be just your friends who see that unfortunate drunken picture of you, or your iPhone reported GPS  location.

What is worrying is what the prevailing governmental attitude means for the Social media and tech industry as a whole, which seems to be “regulate and control first, think later”.

What this measure does is add another expensive regulatory overhead (in this case archiving and logging user interaction to be sent to the government) for what is one on the few potential areas of growth in the UK economy – despite the recession, lack of government support for small business, ruinously expensive cost of hosting, the UK’s crippling tax regime (both business and personal), and its hidebound attitude to innovation.

The combined effect is that anyone who is going to be hosting a social network (or even starting a business) is going to be doing so overseas – increasing the already frightening flow of capital and talent out of the UK economy. Surely what we should be doing, especially in the current economic climate, is encouraging the growth of small business and an innovation culture rather than smothering it with expensive and unnecessary regulation?

Of course this was all conceived to appear to be Doing Something, and to target the big established networks. These networks would be told that in order for them to do business in the UK they must submit to this regulation – but this too could backfire.

As Youtube’s recent decision to block UK access to music videos goes some way to illustrate, the UK market is simply too small for us to be throwing our weight around in this way.

We are not China, and many companies are perfectly prepared to forego a slice of the UK market if they can make more money elsewhere and with far smaller overheads. Therefore we will likely be destroying a much needed area of growth in the fatally crippled UK economy for no reason whatsoever.

That is unless you buy into the idea that this will catch the mystical terrorist boogeyman – at least the ones who are smart enough to pose a real threat – who I imagine would use another method of communication… like for example, sending a letter.

Image: ‘One nation under CCTV’ taken by Mayu