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Column: Privacy is over-rated

07/07/2011

Where I was last night, what I did, what I ate, and who I did it with – that’s probably not anyone else’s business. But if someone knew about it, what would it really matter? But then, if I had lied about where I was or what I was doing then I would prefer to keep it a secret. Doing so would involve more lies on my part, then conspiracy with others, then a cap on any information around the events of the evening in question. I would have to impose punishments on those who divulged any information of what I did that night.

Maybe I did lie, maybe I didn’t; maybe I just felt like keeping it a secret. Either which way, when it comes to who I had dinner with I don’t think anyone would question my right to keep that to myself.

They would however question whether this had anything to do with a state secret and so hardly of national interest. But some things should be known in the national interest and that is where the problem lies with the troubled Protection of Information Bill.

When it comes to a government keeping secrets from a population that put them in office, one must be weary, even if good reasons are presented. And there are arguments, convincing ones, which justify a government classifying certain documents. Information that is valuable, information that is sensitive, commercial or even information that is personal can be classified under reasonable circumstances to protect the national interest. This interest is multi-faceted and includes the security of the state and things like justice, democracy, economic growth, a stable monetary system, and sound international relations. I am not an expert on such matters but not many would put up a real argument suggesting that the endangering of these interests don’t matter.

And nor would I, but the issue of who holds the power and who makes the decision as to what is classified – that’s the problem for me. From what has been suggested, this decision making power can rest with a relatively minor employee of the State. The bill states that ‘designated staff’ can stamp things secret or top secret. What qualifications are required for this designation is not clear.

Take note that it clearly states in the proposed bill that classification may not under any circumstances be used to conceal an unlawful act, limit scrutiny and avoid criticism. But how do we know what is being classified and so determine whether a wrong is being covered up? The public merely need to trust their State officials and roll with the decision. That doesn’t work for me.

I support the efforts of related sites and their contributors such as Wikileaks – and there are more out there than you might think. That said, I don’t support the revealing of documents simply because they are classified. Julian Assange or another hack with the smarts to gain access to classified information hardly has more right to declassify than the government clerk has to classify. Assange says, “If you deny us access we are not only going to criticise you but take that information and spring it all over the world and put it in our archive so that it will never disappear”.

Rubbish. A classified document doesn’t necessarily need to be exposed. But I will concede that access to information must be inherently better than a lack of access.

I live on the net. The world should be at my fingertips. Perhaps that is something I am used to, and the threat of removing that access is scary. If such laws, despite the recent welcome reconsiderations by the ruling party are pushed through parliament it will drive even further to the use of such platforms like Wikileaks, and its possible dangerous flaws of judgment.

Document classification needs to be out in the open and decided by a court after a transparent assessment process.  Clear reasons must be given for classifying information and a court is much more likely to do that than a State official with possibly skewed interests. I will not be told what I can read and I will not be assumed to be irresponsible with sensitive information by an official merely designated.

As my former editor, Henry Jeffreys wrote in a previous Monday column over this issue – this is not the time to be silent. Let the public decide what the national interest is.

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