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Simon and Gus
Simon Davies is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, although with typical jovial self-deprecation he claims he doesn’t even remember where he’s visiting from. He’s also the director of human-rights group Privacy International (CPI). American colleague Gus Hosein also works for PI. They are both co-mentors on the LSE’s Identity Project, which they set up out of concern about the lack of debate on the Government’s plan for ID cards. Having been trying to engage the Government on its burgeoning ID cards policy since its inception in 2002, they’d met with a bit of a blank.
So in 2005 they decided to assemble a group of academics to produce a detailed report, cold-calling reputable professors. As a civil-liberties campaigner, Simon would have concentrated on that angle if the project had been his alone, but he was keen to bring in impartial individuals to the joint effort. ‘We’d say, “Look, will you take part in this, just as an oversight responsibility?” And we didn’t look to their ideological background, we didn’t look to where they stood on ID cards – we were concerned about their reputation and their skills.’
The project ended up with 16 professors ready to go. They didn’t have any funding so they were doing it for nothing. The project soon revealed itself to be an enormous undertaking, with 60 researchers in all contributing and reviewing.
After six months, Simon and Gus had a four-hundred-page report. Its conclusions were startling, and showed up how many flaws there were in the Government’s plans. ‘The policy was going to be costly, unworkable, insecure, un- popular, and essentially a poisoned chalice for any government,’ says Simon. The report was measured, however, and pointed out that the idea of ID cards was not necessarily a disastrous one in and of itself. ‘We were careful to say that the report does not reject ID Cards, on the principle that they can work very well in other countries,’ says Gus. ‘It depends on how the card is designed. Essentially we were tearing apart the foundations of the design as done by this Government, because this Government didn’t want to just build an identity card, they wanted to build a significant infrastructure for central government.’
Something of a campaign began to discredit, destabilise and shush the authors of the report. This ruckus inadvertently managed to stir media and public interest. This was no good for the Government, and it was only going to get worse. The Observer got hold of the £19 billion figure, divided it by the population, and came up with the nice, round, damning figure of £300 per person for an ID card. This was quickly disseminated throughout the media.
The permanent secretary of the Home Office called Sir Howard Davies, the director of the LSE, and demanded that he stop the report’s publication. The LSE receives £11 million a year from the Government, which it seemed they might lose over this. However it quickly became apparent that the bullying tactic wasn’t going to work. ‘The council of the LSE ordered the director to write a letter to the media saying how the Government tried to bully the LSE away from releasing the report,’ says Gus.
So the Government’s tack was changed, and Simon was singled out as the sole crackpot author of the collaborative report, painting him as a civil liberties nut with an agenda. ‘And the great irony,’ says Gus, ‘is that the first report has 18 chapters, and two of the chapters focus on cost issues, and only half a chapter focuses on human-rights implications. The rest of the report doesn’t even mention the word privacy, it hardly mentions civil liberties, but they basically tried to paint it as one man’s vendetta against the Government.”
The campaign against Simon intensified. Dirt was dug.
Corporations Simon had worked for and friends were called into Whitehall to spill the dirt on Simon, when that did not uncover anything companies he worked for were advised to drop him if they wanted any business from the government. The chief irony was that Simon had mentored the report, not written it. Regardless, Simon was the one singled out as a target, and his persecution soon reached crisis point. ‘I think the worst moment was when a company which had promised me some work was directly approached by the Home Office and told to back off. I was already in default two months on the rent. I had to leave and move in effectively to a squat. I also had to give up my dog, Buster, which was quite traumatic. The dog was a pain sometimes, all inner-city dogs are, but I gave him to a German Shepherd rescue organisation and move into this squat. It really got to the point where I was getting desperate and wondering, you know, where do I go to from here – is this going to be my life from here on in?’
To find out what happened to Simon and more about ID cards please watch Taking Liberties
and read the accompanying book
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