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Opinion: Conservatives eye Big Brother

Nick Clegg has pledged to end "culture of spying" and surveillance in Britain. Is he endangering people in the process?

Yet, for all of that, societies in the age of terror have a right to protect themselves. Each must reach a delicate balance between security and civil liberties. Unlike the U.S., Britain does not have a written constitution, and much of what would be illegal in this country is not necessarily so in Britain. There are some measures, such as torture, for which society should show no tolerance. But in the privacy sphere it seems to me there is more leeway.

After all, we read that Facebook may be less vigilant about privacy than the British security services, and we give away more information about our daily lives today than would have been conceivable only a decade or so ago. Email is not really secure in the private sector. And think of the transponder on the windshield of your car that pays your tolls automatically. The toll takers have a record of every toll you went through on any given day of the year, and thus a blueprint of your travel.

If one can concede to the state the necessity of having to carry a driver's license, is a national identity card really so burdensome? And if there is no legitimate objection to having to show a passport when you enter or leave a country, giving your name, as well as place and date of birth, can a chip that might carry more information, and make it more difficult for a someone to steal and use your passport, be such a horrifying violation of personal privacy?

To be sure nobody wants an East German bureaucracy to take hold in the mother of parliaments, but given the realities of today, whereby some citizens as well as visitors, seek to blow up people in mass numbers, I don’t think that cameras keeping watch is anymore objectionable than an alert cop on the beat when you go for a shopping trip in London. After all, your credit card is going to give away where you have been and what you have been up to anyway.

I have been told that in Venice, during the days of Austrian rule, Venetians would go about in Mardi Gras masks all the time so that people wouldn’t be able to recognize them. No one could tell who was closing a business deal with whom when two elaborately masked men had coffee together at Florians. Nor could a jealous husband tell if that was his wife strolling with her lover. The Austrians, however, put a stop to it, just the way certain European countries are planning to ban Muslim women from covering their features completely today.

It is never easy to get the mix right when it comes to privacy and public security, but I, for one, feel better about London’s security now than I will when Nick Clegg is finished dismantling much of it.