The Labour Purge…. and social media privacy.

The so-called ‘Labour Purge’ has many disturbing elements – from the motivations behind those who might ‘need’ to be purged to the motivations of those who want to purge them – but there is one aspect that appeared yesterday that seems to have been largely ignored: the attitude to people’s privacy. There was one particular statement, reported in the Guardian, that I found particularly disturbing:

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There are many different elements to this statement that should bother us, but two linked point are particularly disturbing. Firstly, it suggests that the party has been scouring the internet to find social media profiles of people who have registered. Secondly, it seems to suggest that for people not to have clearly identifiable social media profiles is suspicious.

Privacy in public

The first idea, that it’s ‘OK’ to scour the net for social media profiles, then analyse them in detail is one that is all too common. ‘It’s in the public, so it’s fair game’ is the essential argument – but it relies on a fundamental misunderstanding of privacy, and of the way that people behave. Privacy isn’t two valued, with information either ‘public’ or ‘private’. It’s not even a spectrum, with some things more private, other things more public. It’s much more complex and nuanced than that. Some things we want to keep private from some people, and are happy to share with others. Some things we change our minds about. Time and context can change things. You might be happy for your friends to know something, but not your parents – or your kids. And vice versa. And it’s not about ‘hiding’ ‘bad’ stuff – again, it’s far more complex than that.

With social media this is particularly important. Though we should be wary of ‘real world’ analogies, in the context of politics it might be worth comparing the sort of conversations people have on Twitter, for example, with those we have in the pub. It’s a public place, and the things we say are ‘in public’, but when you chat with your mates around a table in a corner of the pub, do you expect that conversation to be recorded, and then pored over by your employers, the police, your relatives, your enemies, the local morality police etc? Do you think it would be OK for someone to have a microphone on the table next to you, and a camera hidden in their pint glass? Yes, this is ‘in public’, but in practice we do expect some degree of privacy – and if we didn’t, we wouldn’t have the kinds of important conversations that we do. If we expect to be watched and recorded, we’re more guarded – and less honest. We should encourage privacy, not ride roughshod over it, if we want honesty, freedom of speech, intelligent political debate and so on. Labour’s approach here is quite wrong.

Anonymity in social media

The second point is just as important. We should not expect people to have social media profiles – let alone identifiable social media profiles. What is more, this is particularly important for some of the people that Labour should care about and support the most. People may be ‘digitally excluded’, for a start – but they might also have extremely valid reasons to be pseudonymous on the internet. Vulnerable people, in particular, might need pseudonymity to protect them from those to whom they are vulnerable. Whistleblowers. People with abusive spouses. People with abusive or manipulative employers. Trade unionists, for example, might have that status used against them – there’s a reason that Trade Union membership is considered ‘sensitive personal data’ under the Data Protection Act. People might wish not to have their religion revealed to all and sundry. People might wish to separate their personal and professional lives for perfectly good reasons.

Respecting and supporting people

There is much more to say on this subject – but the underlying issue is the one that is most disturbing. What the Labour Party is doing may well breach the Data Protection Act – there is a discussion to be had here – but it is certainly at least verging on the creepy. It displays an attitude to people who wish to support them that is disappointing to say the least. It displays a distrust of – even a contempt for – people that should worry us.

Did they ask the people who applied to become supporters if it was OK for them to be scrutinised in this way? Did they inform them that they would be scrutinised in this way? Did they even think that it might be an issue? Did they check who would be doing the scrutiny, and what they would do with the data that they gathered? Have they compiled databases with the scrutiny information in – something that would certainly engage the Data Protection Act? Are there blacklists? How have they ensured that this data, these lists, are secure and not open to misuse? Have they even asked any of these questions?

The underlying attitude seems to be one of the classic and hideous misunderstanding of privacy: ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear’. If that’s still the attitude of the Labour Party, even after all the revelations of the last few years, they need to step back and think again.

Labour should embrace privacy

The Labour Party should embrace privacy, not ride roughshod over it. Privacy should protect the weak against the powerful. It should enable people to organise, to support themselves with and as a community. It should be precisely the sort of thing that Labour should support. They should remember the way that the powerful – whether governments, corporations, criminals or other powerful groups – invade privacy in order to cement and wield their power. They should remember how vulnerable people and vulnerable groups need privacy. They should always have known this – but now, particularly now, they should be aware of it, and change both their attitude and their actions.