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:

Screen Shot 2015-08-25 at 20.15.25

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.

23 thoughts on “The Labour Purge…. and social media privacy.

  1. I do not use my real name online. I have been online since about 1995 & it was always reccommended that you use a pseudonym, especially in “public” spaces like Usenet, IRC, BBS, chatrooms etc. If more people separated their online social life from their “business” life, or understood the reasons for doing it, they might not have the situation bite them in the arse when their employer sacks them for a comment they made on FB that a colleague brought to the employer’s attention. And don’t get me started about the idiots who have almost their entire company added as “friends” & then wonder why they get sacked after taking a sick day but posting pictures of the fun they were having elsewhere (or how drunk they got the night before)…

    The trend to add all of your colleagues, and bosses, as “friends” on social media is insane. Most of the people you work with nowadays are not friends, generally all you have in common is the workplace. If it comes to you or them, they won’t pick you, because they are not really friends. At best they are acquaintances. Your bosses/managers are NOT your friends. They can’t be. They have to keep at arms length while they have any responsibility for you or power over you.

    Not only do I not use my real name online, I use variations of my pseudonym on different platforms – so if you know me, you might be able to guess who the person asking to “friend” you is, but it’s much harder for a stranger to work out.

  2. Paul you’ve hit the nail on the head.

    I joined Labour in 1994, aged 32. I’d been an RAF officer, and kind of fell into voting Tory based on defence policy and a lack of awareness or thought for what might be important in the wider world (the self-centredness of youth). I had an epiphany during Gulf War I, when the politics of war, the importance of the British arms industry internationally, and the relative lack of importance of the human beings involved (on all sides) became suddenly apparent thanks to some research into the politics of the middle east, and the particular role I was in. On returning to the UK after several years overseas I was shocked at what I saw. I left the RAF and went to university, where I joined Labour Students and the party. What would they make of me now?

    I’m strongly socialist, wary of party politics (having left the party over Iraq), and wholly disillusioned. I voted Green in the GE. I’ve criticised Labour constantly, and supported some aspects of what they were doing, but I’m not a fan now. However, I wholly approve of Jeremy Corbyn. He’s saying what I feel, he has a core morality and he embodies what Labour lacks. The notion of stopping people joining who don’t represent Labour’s core values (what core values? The ones that mean you abstain on the Welfare Bill?) is particularly scary. The Labour establishment represents corporate politics, Corbyn represents Labour’s heart and soul – the people who ARE the party.

    My social media name is half fake, because I was warned by a senior at work that some things I’d said were being noticed higher up. I was then looking for another job, and didn’t want my political leanings to be that apparent, particularly in this era where espousing even mildly left wing views is considered tantamount to slaughtering the Russian royal family in cold blood and starting a revolution.

    I have a friend whose job means she really doesn’t want any of her clients knowing who she is or where she lives. Her pseudonym is clearly that, and Facebook banned her. She wrote a detailed response explaining her situation, which was ignored. Apparently the impetus behind this is to make trolling more difficult. Oh the irony.

    It’s deeply concerning.

  3. Really spot-on article. Difficult to squeeze toothpaste back into tubes, but I do think that pressure on Labour is essential. It was under the Labour government that we became the most watched, listened to, photographed and spied on nation anywhere. They have a mindset which fails to value or respect privacy. Corbyn is probably a better bet on that, as well as on other things, but he’s going to come under huge pressure and will need sustained support to resist!

  4. Salsville
    August 27, 2015 at 11:11 am
    ”Corbyn is probably a better bet on that, as well as on other things, but he’s going to come under huge pressure and will need sustained support to resist!”
    1)….. And there are many of us who left the party during the Blair years, or just after, who will be joining immediately Mr Corbyn wins. We will bring our skills and experience to the struggle ahead to re-establish the People’s Party as a party of principle, with clearly defined values, and adherence to an understandable moral code
    2)….. What a totally misguided, Yankee inspired, £3 voting, but not joining, mock membership scheme that WAS. And an insult to the REAL members who have tramped the streets in all weathers, knocked on doors, got chased by dogs I(And Fascist voters); attended exciting, and interminably boring, meetings, etc.

    3)….. On keeping tabs on people, why such surprize? It was after all War Crim. Blair’s pet project to have us all carry Identity cards, or were they trackable ankle cuffs, wasn’t it?

  5. Detailed data protection analysis on but basically I could defend Labour from a DP perspective from doing the vetting so long as their processes were fair and what they looked at was relevant.

    I suspect the procedures are not fair for the reasons in the blog. Also, there might be a lawfulness point with respect to any use of the Electoral Roll.

  6. Back when universal CCTV was just starting to hit I remember thinking that what was being lost, without anyone trying to protect it or even really noticing, was any presumption of ‘privateness’ – any right not be watched – in public spaces. Something similar happened with ANPR, with (if anything) even less dissent. But surely *not* being watched should be the default state: of course the police and the security services would prefer to be able to listen in on any conversation anywhere (it’s what they do), but surely they should have to justify it – and not only when they’re actually reading people’s emails and planting bugs in their offices. All of which goes double for non-state agencies, of course.

    I think the English language lets us down here – ‘private’ carries all sorts of overtones suggesting that it’s an exceptional state (checking all the doors, drawing the curtains, encrypting your email etc). The idea that a certain level of ‘privacy’ might be our starting assumption – that there might be a legitimate expectation that public spaces were also private spaces, or rather unwatched spaces – is hard to put into words, let alone campaign for.

    1. The above is an major reason for a robust Article 8 of the ECHR (which has stopped universal data collection and retention in general).

      Do the authorities collect and retain personal data without any suspicion or do you only collect and retain personal data only when you have suspicion?

      The problem is not the above but when you have the current situation re terrorism: the authorities have no idea of who to watch (i.e. there is no prior suspicion or perhaps minimal suspicion) so mass data retention and collection is needed to find out who to be suspicious about.

      This is where people need to do some serious thinking. It explains David Anderson’s report where he recommends a rebalancing of procedures between surveillance and the surveilled.

      See “Nine principles for assessing whether privacy is protected in a surveillance society”

      Chris P

  7. Very good article. However, it could have included a reference to Article 12 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which stated that:-

    “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

    This just about covers all of today’s intrusions by anyone, into others privacy. However, the State denied us these Rights, and even after The International Bill of Human Rights (which includes the above) became legally binding in 1976, UK Governments have just ignored it.

    So get supporting it people by #tibohr and voting for these & and spread the word too.


  8. Labour will have to end the use of the primary approach to electing leaders and deputy leaders as soon as the current elections are out of the way. In future, only fully paid up members, who have been members of the Labour Party for at least twelve months should be allowed to participate in internal elections.

    Individuals would, through their membership, show their commitment to Labour’s principles and values, and, specifically their compliance with Clause I of the Membership Rules:

    3. Individual members shall be subjects/residents of The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern
    Ireland or citizens of Eire or other persons resident in The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern
    Ireland for more than one year who:

    A. are not less than 14 years of age, and

    B. subscribe to the conditions of membership in this clause, and

    C. are not members of political parties or organisations ancillary or subsidiary thereto declared by party
    conference or by the NEC in pursuance of party conference decisions to be ineligible for affiliation to the

    4. Exclusions

    A. A member of the party who stands for election, subscribes to a nomination paper of or acts as the election agent to a person standing for election, in opposition to a Labour candidate, shall automatically be ineligible to be or remain a party member, subject to the provisions of Chapter 6.I.2 of the disciplinary rules.

    B. A member of the party who joins and/ or supports a political organisation other than an official Labour group or other unit of the party, or supports any candidate who stands against an official Labour candidate, or publicly declares their intent to stand against a Labour candidate, shall automatically be ineligible to be or remain a party member, subject to the provisions of Chapter 6.I.2 of the disciplinary rules.

    C. A member of the party that is a duly endorsed Labour candidate and stands by their own volition as a candidate under a description other than as a Labour candidate and having given less than 14 days written notice of such to the local party prior to the close of nominations, shall automatically be ineligible to be or remain a party member, subject to the provisions of Chapter 6.I.2 of the disciplinary rules

    There would, therefore, be no need to undertake the sort of checks currently being undertaken to ensure that Clause I of the Membership Rules is being complied with by all those currently eligible to vote in Labour’s Leadership Election. Whoever signed off on the rule changes, relating to electing a leader, failed to take account of the party’s long standing Membership Rules:

    Click to access Rule-Book-2013.pdf

  9. One of my local Cllrs on Twitter shared a post with incorrect information about me as ‘Evidence’ as to why I’ve been barred; thought he was behind it!

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