A little rant about the government’s £12 billion interception programme

I originally wrote this as a column, but couldn’t make it funny…

Since 9/11, our government has been rather keen on burying bad news (its phrase, not ours) by announcing really stupid ideas when people are distracted by more immediately terrifying things. So with capitalism apparently collapsing around our ears, cynics would expect something truly appalling to sneak out when our attention was elsewhere. They were right. While shouting “Look! Over there! It’s all your money! And it’s ON FIRE!” the Home Office quietly admitted that it planned to spend £12 billion to wiretap every single person in Britain – and that it had already committed £1 billion to the project.

Maybe the Home Office got the idea from The Wire, but if they did then they’ve missed the point of the programme altogether. The Wire isn’t about How Wiretaps Are Brilliant; it’s a howl of anger about political betrayal and the damage done when the people in power only care about the next headline. Maybe the Home Office watched it with the sound off.

Leaving the civil liberties arguments to one side – it’s something the Stasi might consider a step too far, it means an Englishman’s home is no longer his castle, it’s going to be abused – let’s just talk about the money. £12 billion is a lot of taxpayers’ cash, but the real bill will be much greater. When it comes to budgeting IT projects the government is like a shifty builder who promises to do your extension for six grand in six weeks. Ten years later you’re sitting in rubble and the builder’s spent your savings on a Bentley. Don’t believe me? Two words. ID cards. Originally, the government told us the bill would be £3.1 billion. Now, they tell us it’ll be fifteen billion, ish. According to the Telegraph, analysts reckon it’ll be costlier still: somewhere north of £34 billion.

Let’s pretend that we can actually trust the government’s figures, though, and the combined cost of ID cards and total surveillance will be £27 billion rather than £50-plus billion. What’s it for? Fighting terrorism, inevitably, plus a few other tabloid favourites such as catching kiddie-fiddling rings. Of course these are serious things, but is that really where we need to spend the money?

Friends of the Earth says that in England alone, 20,000 people – most of them pensioners – die every year from the cold. That’s three times the combined death toll of 9/11 and the Northern Ireland conflict combined, each and every year – and according to FoE, “the rise in the number of fuel poor is likely to put more lives at risk this winter. Many families with young children are forced to choose between heating their homes and cooking a hot meal.”

While the Home Office is chucking billions at GCHQ to tap people’s communications, FoE and Help The Aged are taking the government to court for allegedly breaching its commitment to eradicating fuel poverty. For a supposedly civilised country to spend billions on unnecessary and invasive IT while tens of thousands of people freeze to death isn’t just appalling. It’s an abomination.