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Privacy in the political system

As privacy advocates and academics, we spend a lot of time speaking to sceptical audiences. Privacy is perceived as an issue of some import, but hardly on the same level of importance as other political rights. In worse environments, privacy is seen as a mere convenience while the government seeks the powers to do everything it can to defend the country, or the state. As a result, though our talks always include a recitation of privacy’s place in all the world’s human rights declarations, conventions, and treaties, our audiences often remain unconvinced of its importance.

By November 2008 my colleagues and I were tired of travel and felt accursed, as I found myself speaking to an audience in Bangladesh on 'the right to privacy'. My colleagues and I were in the last stages of an exhausting tour taking us through nine countries in Asia and Eastern Africa. Everywhere we went we faced storms.  Some of these storms were real (a Typhoon hit the Philippines on our last day there), some were economic (as the world teetered on economic downturn). The ones that concerned us most were the political storms: some were early-stage (we had to sneak into the Government House in Bangkok as thousands of protestors organised outside), others were erupting (the opposition leader in Malaysia was arrested, again, for sodomy charges, again), and some were violent (our hotel in Pakistan was bombed a couple of weeks after our visit). Our audiences were patient but apart from internet issues, they didn't necessarily understand the importance of privacy.

The Bangladeshi audience in November only began paying attention to my talk when I disclosed breaking news to them, of a storm of a British nature:  a Member of Parliament had just been arrested by counter-terrorism police for publishing leaked government documents. Officers conducted simultaneous searches of Conservative MP Damian Green’s constituency home and office, his office in the House of Commons (without a warrant), and his London home (though they first surrounded the wrong home). His crimes included: gaining access to internal government documents that when published embarrassed the Labour Government on immigration issues; receiving a list of Labour MPs who were likely to rebel against the Government’s anti-terrorism plans to detain terror suspects without charge; amongst others. He was fingerprinted, and his DNA was taken. The police went through his old love letters to his wife and his daughter’s books, seized his files, computer and Blackberry. They searched through his emails to discover whom he was communicating with, in particular whether he had been speaking with human rights critics of the Government. Centuries of respecting ‘Parliamentary Privilege' to protect MPs were swept away, as the Opposition party began sweeping Green’s home, offices and car for bugs.1 Political leaders, critics, luminaries and editors decried how this was ’Stalinesque’, or akin to the actions of the Stasi, or 'something that Mugabe would do'.

Every time we repeat this story, and dozens of other recent examples from around the world, the rooms are full of disbelief. Other recent cases include:

  • The Bush Administration intercepted conversations of Democrat Congresswoman Jane Harman in 2005, suspecting that she was cooperating with known Israeli spies, as she sought their support to get her appointed as chair of the House Intelligence Committee if the Democrats won the next election. Curiously, the Bush Administration did not proceed on the issue in 2005 as they felt Harman was a valuable ally who could urge the New York Times to not publish a news story uncovering the Bush Administration’s telecommunications surveillance programme.2
  • French magazines gained access to the papers of the former head of the Renseignements Generaux (RG) police intelligence service in 2008. The diaries showed that the RG kept notes on a variety of ministers and critics of former President Jacques Chirac, including their financial information, sexual orientation and habits, and histories of drug use.3
  • Police in the UK were accused of having contravened the ‘Wilson Doctrine' by twice recording conversations of Labour MP Sadiq Khan as he visited a constituent in prison.4 The ‘Wilson Doctrine' was established in the 1960s when the Government, under Harold Wilson, pledged to not tap the phones of MPs. As his conversations were only bugged, not intercepted, it was decided that the Doctrine had remained intact.

These are some of the cases we know of, in countries that have traditions of open government. Put in this light, however we begin to understand that privacy is not some value, or something that can be given away in exchange for security. Privacy is a key defence of a healthy democratic system.

Safeguards are traditionally in place to protect politicians' privacy because there is a feeling that their ability to organise and act is integral to the political system. Collecting secret information on these individuals is a threat to the integrity of the political system. For instance, in 2009 a plot was uncovered in the UK where the Prime Minister's head of strategy and planning devised a plan to smear the leader of Tory Party as suffering from an embarrassing medical condition such as a sexually transmitted disease. The plan was to only allege that the evidence existed, and require the victim to come forward with alternative evidence, thereby disclosing his financial and medical records.5 Ironically, the UK Government is developing a national database of medical records from which much of this information could be accessed.


  • 1. 'MP's home swept for 'police bugs'', BBC, December 5, 2008.
  • 2. 'Gonzales Intervened on Lawmaker, Ex-Officials Say', Mark Mazzetti and Neil A. Lewis, The New York Times, April 24, 2009.
  • 3.  'Nicolas Sarkozy affair revealed in notes of ex-spy chief Yves Bertrand', Charles Bremner, The Times, October 10, 2008.
  • 4. 'MP was bugged twice, report says', BBC, February 21, 2008.
  • 5. 'McBride and Draper emails: 'Gents, a few ideas'', Gaby Hinsliff and Mark Tran, Observer, April 12, 2009.