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Last Updated: Friday, 14 March 2008, 16:17 GMT
Someone's watching you

By Clive James

The age of electronic communication has allowed a hammer blow against privacy, Clive James writes, but even the last bastion, the humble letter, is under threat.

Let's begin, where British madness so often begins, in London.

London's mayor Ken Livingstone has an aide who has recently been busted sending amorous e-mails to a friend. The aide, known in the tabloid press as "Ken aide", has a few questions to answer about what he has been doing with some of the money entrusted to him.

No doubt he will give satisfactory answers, and I, to name only one, will realise that my council tax cheque has been put to good use under his guidance.

Clive James
If everyone could suddenly read everyone else's thoughts then very few people would survive the subsequent massacre

But he will find it harder to shake off the accusation that he has been writing besotted e-mails, because the Evening Standard printed them verbatim. Andrew Gilligan, in charge of that newspaper's investigations into Ken Aide's activities, can congratulate himself that he has caught Ken Aide red-eyed with lust, if not red-handed in malfeasance.

But I wonder if anyone else should be congratulating Mr Gilligan. Isn't there something wrong about helping yourself to the private e-mails of politicians, the private text messages of footballers, the private phone calls of... you fill in the blanks.

And to the contention that nothing is private for the prominent, shouldn't we be saying that privacy is for everyone, and not just for you and me?

To say that, however, you have to believe in private life as a value. I think most of us still do, although it may very well be true that a private life is becoming impossible to lead. But just because it's fading from existence doesn't mean that it was never vital.

Linguistic assault

Private life is an institution, like the English language, which is collapsing too, and proving, even as it falls to bits, that it's a structure our lives depend on.

Ken Aide's friend, prominent in that official field of race relations which is now known as community cohesion, has been quoted as saying: "I see a time when race policy will only be actioned with the sanction of committees."

There could be no clearer evidence that the English language is in a bad way. But I got that quotation from something she published, not from one of her e-mails. If she had said it in an e-mail it might well have raced Ken Aide's motor, but as far as I know she didn't. And as far as I know is, I think, quite far enough.

Snoopable methods of communication are now standard

Most of us are capable of grasping that if everyone could suddenly read everyone else's thoughts then very few people would survive the subsequent massacre, which would effectively bring civilisation to an end. If you were living alone in a cave, you might just stay alive until the following morning, but only if you were in there alone.

To live in society at all, we have to keep a reservoir of private thoughts, which, whether wisely or unwisely, we share only with intimates. This sharing of private thoughts is called private life.

Until recently, the concept of private life was basic to civilisation. Its value could be measured by the thoroughness with which totalitarian states and religions always did their best to stamp it out. But now we have to face the possibility that the latest stage of civilisation might also be trying to stamp it out.

Tabloid basement

You can still keep your thoughts to yourself - nobody has yet invented a machine that can get into your head and broadcast what it finds - but if you try to communicate those private thoughts to anyone else you run an increasing risk that they will be communicated to everyone.

It doesn't matter who you are, if you are conspicuous enough in public life and use a mobile telephone to transmit a private secret then you might very soon see it printed in the newspapers.

North Korean borderguard keeps an eye out
Some states have not rated privacy highly

You probably remember that when this actually happened a few years back, the press coverage was endless. But I can't remember a single feature article which raised the question of whether the printing of an intercepted private phone call was not in itself far more startling than any secrets that might have been revealed.

Partly this was because the press, taken as a whole, had already reached the conclusion that everything was grist to its mill. The British press, even its tabloid basement, could be worse. On the whole it leaves the children alone. But one way or another it will print anything it can get about an adult. What has changed, in recent years, is the range of what it can get.

There was a limit to what it could do with letters sent through the post. It couldn't steam them open. In the reign of the first Elizabeth, her chief spy Walsingham routinely opened every letter that entered or left England, but that was early days. If the press wanted to do that now, it would have to steal letters faster than the post office can lose them.

Secret police

With the arrival of the mobile telephone, things got easier. I can well remember, late in the last century, a senior executive of one of the big press conglomerates trying to impress me at some reception or other by saying that he had, in his safe, transcripts of mobile phone calls that would rock the monarchy on its base.

He seemed very proud of himself, but for a moment I realised what it must be like to be face to face with the head of the secret police in the kind of country where only the police have secrets.

Things have moved on since then. No transcript stays in the safe for long, and now there are e-mails to draw upon. It's been said that nobody sensible confides to an e-mail anything that he wouldn't be prepared to see published in the newspapers, and this might indeed be so.

Sanctions against people who use words like 'unsustainable' should be actioned by committee

But it could equally be said that nobody sensible puts his money in a bank that might be robbed. There are identity thieves robbing banks every minute of the day without even having to pull on a balaclava. Unless we keep our money under the mattress, we have to trust the bank, which might be hard to do, but would be even harder if the bank-robber could not be classified as a criminal.

Pinching private phone calls and e- mails ought to be a crime, but somehow it isn't. And it probably won't be. There are too many laws as it is; too many of the new laws are useless; and a law against printing anything you can find would probably be seen as an infringement of free speech, even though the unrestricted theft of private messages amounts to an infringement of free speech anyway.

After the Ken Aide e-mail incident hit the headlines, some commentators were quick to note that if you really want to speak freely in private, the thing to do is write an old-fashioned letter.

Swiftian absurdity

Few of these commentators noted that their suggestion came at the very time when Post Office (TM) - TM because it is no longer the Royal Mail but is now a business - is proceeding with its plans to close somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 post offices.

Most of these post offices slated by Post Office (TM) for destruction are in rural areas. In other words, they serve small towns and villages that are hard to get to, which you would have thought was the very reason why the people in them need to write and receive letters.

The Post Office's rationale for this further truncation of its already abbreviated service reaches a height of absurdity which Jonathan Swift would have hesitated to scale, lest his readers stop laughing and reach for the arsenic. The Post Office says that it all costs too much. The losses, it says, are "unsustainable".

Man with mobile phone
Think carefully what you say

But sanctions against people who use words like "unsustainable" should be actioned by committee. You will immediately spot that Post Office (TM) is speaking the same new language as Ken Aide's friend. The post office, before it was hobbled with its trademark, wasn't a business, it was an institution.

An institution is something without which civilisation itself is unsustainable. It could be said - no doubt the Post Office has a management layer in which such things are said full time, as a prelude to their being actioned - it could be said that the old ladies in the villages, who will no longer meet each other at the post office after it is turned into a community cohesion centre, could always send e-mails.

They need never leave the house. After all, they've had plenty of practice since Dr Beeching was deputed to annihilate the railway service on the same grounds: unsustainability.

And there is always a good case for leaving the village behind, if you don't mind waiting for a bus. GK Chesterton used to argue that the best reason for moving to the city was that in a village everybody knows your business, so you couldn't lead a private life.

He'd find it hard to say the same now. You can be in the biggest city in the world, and every phone you pick up, and every computer you sit down at, is a direct pipeline to universal publicity for any thought you dare to express.

Plato would have been envious. He devised a legal body called the Nocturnal Council, but if its members suspected you of impiety they only wanted to discuss it with you for a few years. And Plato never dreamed that his hideous Republic could be established except by coercion.

We seem to be volunteering for ours. But nobody has invented a mind-reading device yet, although I have noticed that some of the latest mobile telephones are small enough to crawl into your ear.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

And the home secretary has just promised us that soon, very soon, resident foreigners like Mr James will have to be registered and bear identity cards. For all our security, of course. Can't have alien critics and poets who might pose a danger to our way of life living here without the state knowing where they are. Someone is watching you, in particular, Clive.
Guy Herbert, general secretary, NO2ID, London

Mr James makes good points, but seems to be unaware of the active role citizens can take in protecting their privacy. The software to encrypt your communications in such a way that they cannot hope to be read by members of the press. MI5 might have some new technology to decrypt our e-mails that they keep secret (such as working quantum computers) but given how inept the government seems to be at protecting its data I consider this unlikely
Pete, Leicester

E-mail need not be a public medium. The facilities are there for everyone to encrypt their e-mails and keep them private. It's easy and doesn't need to cost you anything. Just Google PGP (and the open source alternative GPG). Add-ins are available for all popular e-mail clients
Stan Thomas, Wrexham, UK

People with good sense don't send embarrassing or self-incriminating e-mail, and never have. E-mail can wind up almost anywhere; in my many years of involvement with administration of computing I was often amazed at the e-mails that wound up on my screen or desk that had not been intended for me (or anyone else except the sender and intended recipient) to see. First class letters have considerable privacy; so do telephone calls made over landlines. But e-mail goes astray with monotonous regularity.
Vyssotsky, Orleans, MA, USA

Not that I think the mind-reading device is imminent, or for that matter desirable: but would it really be that damaging? Surely we would merely become desensitised to the offence caused - we would not expect the same rules of etiquette to apply to people's unconscious behaviour as govern their conscious behaviour.
Chris, Cambridge, UK

A well argued piece. We do have to think carefully now, before we communicate, could this be traced back, used, misused? And, am I incriminating myself here? I long ago ceased to feel free to air my full, uncensored views in forums such as this. Who knows who might trace my IP address if it seemed politically incorrect? Since the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, almost overlooked by the press at the time, we've seen an army of snoopers checking up on our correctness.

Its official purpose: "An act to make provision for and about the interception of communications, the acquisition and disclosure of data relating to communications, the carrying out of surveillance, the use of covert human intelligence sources and the acquisition of the means by which electronic data protected by encryption or passwords may be decrypted or accessed; to provide for commissioners and a tribunal with functions and jurisdiction in relation to those matters, to entries on and interference s with property or with wireless telegraphy and to the carrying out of their functions by the Security Service, the Secret Intelligence Service and the Government Communications Headquarters; and for connected purposes."

Connected purposes? What could be more Orwellian than that?
Trevor H, North Norfolk

I have things that I'd say to someone in person but wouldn't commit to an email. It's all too easy to hit the "forward" button. However, if the emails sent by Ken Aide were from a personal account, don't they still retain copyright of them and if published in full by a newspaper, haven't they breached that copyright?
Dave, Cambridge, UK

A marvellous piece of comment and one that is touching a chord with a lot of people in the world today. I personally feel that I am sometimes living inside Orwell's book of 1984 when I realise that if I take a journey to into the city of London I am on camera anywhere between 100 and 300 times in a day. Every aspect of my life is now seemingly logged by some obscure entity whether it be my shopping tastes (online shopper tracking) or my political views (online voting). We've even been asked as I comment on this, if we want CCTV protection for our business through an unsolicited fax.
Wendy Clark, Felsted, Essex, UK

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