“Freedom is not given. It is our right at birth. But there are times when it must be taken”.
Recognize those words? That’s what’s known as the “tagline” – a phrase or passage that is immediately identifiable with a particular film – from “Amistad” (1997). If you didn’t see it, it’s based on the true story of the takeover of the Cuban slave ship named in the title by slaves imprisoned aboard, who were seized in Cuba and are being transported to service on a sugar plantation, also in Cuba. After taking over the ship, the new masters demand the ships officers take them back to Africa, but at night the former masters change course and the ship eventually reaches the United States, where all the Africans are taken into custody as runaway slaves. Much of the plot focuses on the legal battle for their freedom, given voice in dramatic manner when the slaves’ leader, Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), rises in court and demands in English (which neither he nor any of the slaves could speak when they were jailed), “Give-es us free”.
I suppose given the ship was seized by the United States Navy in August 1839 and the decision (in favour of the Africans, ruling they were illegally enslaved and had the right to fight for their freedom) was not rendered until March 1841, Cinque likely could have learned to articulate a complicated concept in a foreign tongue even if nobody volunteered to teach him; still, the accomplishment remains a defining moment of the film. But it also provides a handy lead-in to what I’d like to talk about today – what is freedom? What does it mean to you? Do you have enough of it, do you think? Who do you think doesn’t have any, and why?
Since this blog deals mostly with issues, misrepresentations and misunderstandings having to do with Russia, there is naturally a Russian connection to the question. During discussion of a recent post, Commenter A advanced the opinion (speaking about Russia), “The state doesn’t interfere in the everyday life of its citizens”, to which Commenter B responded, “Aside from making them carry passports to take the train somewhere and the requirement that they submit details of where they are living to the local authorities”.
Commenter A is a Hungarian, living in Hungary, and Commenter B is an Englishman working abroad. Neither is Russian, which introduces the interesting question; how free, really, are Russian citizens to go about their daily business – providing they do nothing deliberately attention-getting, such as driving into a couple of pedestrians or robbing a convenience store – without their every move being monitored by a hovering, information-greedy police state? How much of what people think daily life is like for the average Russian is influenced by their own popular press, and how accurate are those impressions? How free are the societies that regularly point a mocking finger at Russia, in reality? Naturally such a discussion would benefit from instructive comparison, so we’re going to use Britain and the United States, the world’s preeminent democracies.
I guess we should start with the book definition, since it seems clear freedom means different things to different people. According to Merriam-Webster (usually a broadly acceptable source), Freedom is, “the quality or state of being free, as the absence of necessity, coercion or constraint in choice or action”. Before we go any further, it appears to be established that none of us has or will ever attain complete freedom as so defined, and it may not even be desirable, as it does not suit the human condition. I’m not free to just help myself from the cash register when I’m at the market picking up some groceries, or to walk out without paying for what I took. You’re not free to drive through town as fast as you like as long as you can stay on the road. Any country that advertises itself as an adherent to the rule of law is, by strictest definition, not free, and anyone who tells you they live in a free country is so full of shit they squeak on the high side of a tight turn.
What, then, is an acceptable level of unfreedom so that the citizens of a particular country consider themselves free in spite of it? Since the comments cited above deal with the requirement to identify oneself to the authorities when ordered to do so, let’s start with that. In Russia, the internal passport was a Stalininst-era tool introduced to control internal migration. It did indeed make life difficult for many Russians, as it also requires you register in your place of residence, and reregister if you change it. It’s apparently quite difficult – I have no practical experience – to do that, as is often the case with anything government-regulated or in which the government has an administrative function. Russian citizens must show their internal passport to law-enforcement officials on demand. International passport rules are similar to those of other countries.
Since it’s generally agreed by those who hold Russia is a police state that internal passports place onerous and unnecessary restraint on its citizens, they’ll be glad to know the practice is scheduled for elimination. The senior executive of the Federal Migration Service, Konstantin Poltoranin, suggested the internal passport “has no future as a legal document”. Additionally, the hassle of registration is recognized and will also be acted upon – as of this year, Russians will be able to change their registered place of residence by mail or online.
Are the world’s two iconic democracies interested in monitoring the internal whereabouts of their citizens as well? They certainly are; let’s look at England first. In 2002, the Labour government of the day proposed the issue-for-fee of a National Identity Card. This would not replace the international passport (although the idea was later proposed and discarded), and consequently was an internal identity document. Presumably one would have to show it on demand by lawful authority, or there’d be little reason for having it. It was originally billed as a “way of combating terrorism”, but the reasoning was changed to “guard against benefit fraud and illegal workers”.
There was considerable opposition to the plan, and the questionnaires received by the Home Office in the public consultation phase came back with more than 5000 of the total 7000 surveyed opposed to the idea. Plainly, the public did not like it. Perhaps illustrating how much public opinion means in the British official decision-making process, the intention to create a national ID card was announced in the Queen’s Speech in 2003. The card would include biometric data. In November 2004 the ID Card Bill was announced, along with the intention of creating a national database which would hold biometric data and other personal information on all cardholders.
Incidentally, did you know the Radio Frequency Identification technology (RFID) chip in an electronic ID card or passport can be read some distance away by anyone with the proper equipment? It’s not shielded; it was determined early on that encrypting your personal information would be too expensive and complicate the card-readers required to process the cards or passports. How far away? Privacy advocates say a maximum of 65 feet (19.8 meters). Government officials say “only in close proximity”. What does that mean? Are you comfortable with close proximity?
Since we’ve already strayed off the subject, let’s stay there for a moment, and briefly discuss whether or not the “official version” is trustworthy, ever. Because RFID technology is expanding rapidly, and businesses as well as governments love it. Consider this example; in a hearing before the House Subcommittee (yes, we’re in the USA for a minute or two) on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection, Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union testified that “RFIDs could be secretly read right through a wallet, pocket, backpack, or purse by anyone with the appropriate reader device, including marketers, identity thieves, pickpockets, oppressive governments, and others”. Defending the use of RFID technology were Proctor & Gamble and Wal-Mart.
Attempting to reassure a nervous public, Proctor & Gamble and Wal-Mart told the subcommittee that not only do they not collect specific data on products or individuals, the technology to even do so is “at least ten years away”. That was in 2004. Skeptics pointed out that the Wal-Mart in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma had used RFID cameras hidden in shelves to track the purchase of lipstick products in 2003. Proctor and Gamble researchers in Cincinnati, some 650 miles away, could watch people taking the products off the shelves via webcam. Wal-Mart’s response was that a warning had been posted to let customers know they might be under surveillance.
Really? What did it say; “If you are here buying lipstick ten years from now, we will be able to see you and what you’re buying. But we can’t right now. Honest.”? Comes to that, if there were no possibility of collecting data, why hide the RFID devices in the first place? If you find official assurances often have a lot in common with lying right to your face like you are some kind of idiot, you are catching on.
Anyway, back to the U.K. There’s no real point in wading through the details of the National ID card program from 2004 to the present – although you can certainly read it for yourself if you’re interested – because the government announced in May of last year that it was scrapping the whole plan and intended to destroy the National Registry database. The likely problem, although it was never publicized anywhere that I saw, is that in order for the card to become compulsory for all Britons, it would have come down to a vote in Parliament, which it likely would not have survived. However, it was announced in 2009 that from 2011, all British subjects over the age of 16 who applied for a passport would be also registered in the national database, whether they had the card or not.
Well, never mind – the initiative never went anywhere – although it cost £5 Billion. Well, that’s the “official” price tag: the London School of Economics says the cost is more likely to be £10 Billion or twice that. Still, at least it’s a dead issue now, right?
Well, yes, except for the electronic e-passports standard in the European Union from 2005, which hold your information in a central EU database called SIS II. Oh, and a “separate but technically similar scheme [to the National ID Card] for some foreign nationals” in Britain, which will continue. About 200,000 of those have already been issued to migrant workers, foreign students and family members from outside the European Economic Area. Since the program is still ongoing, it’s safe to presume there will be many more.
All right. Well, some Britons are pretty free; they don’t have to carry a National ID card, although if they want to leave the country they’ll have to carry an electronic passport. But they can do what they want inside the UK.
Ummm…provided they have never been arrested on suspicion of having committed a recordable offense, in which case their fingerprints and/or DNA sample may be resident in a national database, where they can be stored indefinitely whether the individual was ever charged with the offense or not. Oh, and they may be an object of interest for one reason or another for one of Britain’s approximately 4 million Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras. Or they may use the Internet or make a phone call, in which case their web-browsing habits and/or emails and phone calls may be monitored and the information stored for up to a year. That stored information will be accessible to over 650 public bodies, including local councils – so stay away from spankmeharddaddy.com. How could they get it? All they need is the assent of a senior police officer.
Does Russia use CCTV cameras to conduct surveillance of its citizens? Sure. But Russia has about 150,000 of them nationwide according to the Deputy Chief of Russia’s Interior Ministry’s public order department – and 80,000 of those are in Moscow. So, while two wrongs don’t make a right, the United Kingdom has better than 26,600 times as many surveillance cameras as Russia does, but is more than 70 times smaller. If you like mathematics for fun, you could work out how much more likely Britain’s citizens are to be under surveillance by law enforcement or other agents of their government at any given time than Russians are – but if simply being free from observation constitutes having more freedom, advantage Russia.
Some British authorities and government figures seem to substantiate that view. Speaking of the Telephone/Internet database, Information Commissioner Richard Thomas told the BBC he was not aware of such a database in any other democracy. Liberal Democrats home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne went further, saying, “Ministers have shown time and time again that they cannot be trusted with sensitive data. There is no reason to think they will be any less slapdash with our phone and internet records”.
Well. This post is getting long, and we haven’t even touched on the USA yet. It’s difficult to explain the Russian internal passport as a means of keeping track of internal migration to the British, because they live in a country you could throw a potato across from one side to the other if you had the wind behind you. But I’d bet the United States understands and tracks domestic migration – and yes, they do. The information is required by law, on your census form. Well, yeah – but in Russia, the police give you a hard time for not properly identifying your residency!!!! Want to see an example of that in the United States? Insist on the right to keep your Maryland license plates even though you live in South Dakota, and to use your Maryland driver’s license and auto insurance. After all, you’re an American, right? Wrong. Oh, and if you want to contribute to the political process in your country, identify yourself at the voting booth as “John Smith, no fixed address”. Can you cast your vote? Ha, ha – no. You have to have a correct and current residential address in order to vote. Oh, my; look at that – you have to register to vote in England, too.
By now everyone is familiar with the warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens authorized by the Patriot Act under President Bush, with it’s controversial “sneak and peek” provisions (which allowed federal authorities to access and search your home or business without your presence or knowledge and without a warrant). Civil liberties activists said it would be subject to “mission creep”, and the authorities would start using it for unrelated law enforcement purposes, while Bush defenders swore it would only be used in matters relating to national security. Either the civil libertarians were right, or cockfighting became a matter of national security, as you can see from this item in the (appropriately named) Cocke County news. The Patriot Act was sold as legislation that would “protect the rights and freedoms of innocent Americans” – and that’s not technically a lie. If you had never in your life done anything illegal, why, you’d be innocent. But that’s the same kind of legislative repackaging that saw a bill that strips away environmental regulations for businesses named the “Clear Skies Act”. By and large, Americans will throw their support behind an initiative that sounds like the right thing to do.
Those tools over at The Economist ranked the USA a full democracy at number 17 in the world in 2010. The United Kingdom at number 19, also a full democracy. Russia? A “hybrid regime” at number 107. Given that both the foregoing have much greater access to and control over the private and personal information of their citizens than Russia does, there can be only one explanation for the discrepancy – it’s okay for the British and American governments to have access to your personal information because you can trust them not to misuse it.
Is that an accurate supposition? Well, you tell me. In a 2011 report entitled, “Patterns of Misconduct: FBI Intelligence Violations from 2001-2008“, the Electronic Frontier Foundation documents instances of the FBI submitting false or inaccurate statements to courts, using improper evidence to obtain Grand Jury subpoenas, and accessing password-protected documents without a warrant. These and other illegal activities numbered at least 7000 in the period cited, but based on the FBI’s demonstrated tendency to report only what it could not cover up, that number may have gone as high as 40,000. The much-abused National Security Letters were frequently used to “seize records from third parties without any judicial review whatsoever”. Investigative journalists Dana Priest and William Arkin revealed in a report entitled, “Monitoring America” that the FBI is “building a database with the names and certain personal information, such as employment history, of thousands of U.S. citizens and residents whom a local police officer or a fellow citizen believed to be acting suspiciously.” If that doesn’t scream “Stalin” to you, you need to go back and read it again. In England, a London police officer used a police database to gain case information which he then used to contact sex offenders and drug dealers and extort bribes to buy his silence. Just as jarring as corrupt use of personal records is government inability to safeguard personal information from criminals; in 2007 the British government lost two computer disks containing the names, addresses, dates of birth, National Insurance numbers and banking information of 25 million of its citizens. That turned out to be a record year for data loss by authoritries entrusted with personal information in the UK – 37 million personal records or items of personal information.
I think that sets to rest the notion that the USA and UK should rank higher on the list of democracies based on the trustworthiness and transparency of their governments. Like the worst governments on the planet, they regularly lose personal information they insist you provide on the basis of complete confidentiality, and cannot resist the urge to use personal information in their care for advantage. The response to numerous incidents of being caught red-handed in the misuse or mismanagement of personal information is to demand more – “for your protection” – and introduce new tracking technologies so your personal movements can be more effectively monitored; technologies such as RFID drivers licenses, in which you are given the choice of taking part, or not driving.
Next time you’re moved by scorn or pity for Russians who live in a relentless police state, spare yourself the trouble. While you may have a much higher standard of living, you’re paying a price for it you don’t see, and Russians – by the standard of free western democracies – don’t suffer from a lack of freedom.