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Too big to use? Government surveillance and big data in the eleventh and twenty-first centuries

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'So very narrowly did he have it investigated, that there was no single hide nor virgate of land, nor indeed (it is a shame to relate but it seemed no shame to him to do) one ox nor one cow nor one pig which was there left out, and not put down in his record'.

We tend to think of governments harnessing the power of Big Data to monitor and police their populations as an intrinsically modern phenomenon. Yet, as the Anglo-Saxon chronicler's deeply suspicious attitude towards the Domesday survey of 1086 demonstrates, popular uneasiness at the notion of increasing state surveillance through enhanced methods of data collection far predates our current digital revolution.

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, has come under increasing fire in recent months from those who accuse her of rushing the Investigatory Powers Bill through parliament, so as to avoid subjecting it to proper scrutiny. Calls for serious amendments to be made to the draft bill, dubbed the 'Snoopers' Charter' by its opponents, have come not only from privacy campaigners, but also from tech giants Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Google. Profound questions have been raised about its legality, morality and efficacy. Conservative backbenchers have threatened to rebel and serious opposition is expected in the House of Lords.

The debate has crystallized around the apparent dichotomy between individual privacy and public security but questions have also been raised about why the government is seeking access to the browsing history and personal communications of millions of its citizens. Is a desire to harvest more and more information the natural response of a regime which perceives itself to be under threat? And, if so, how does the Home Office actually anticipate using this Big Data security blanket? In spite of profound and obvious contextual differences, the millennium-old Domesday Book offers a surprisingly instructive point of comparison with the current debate on government data collection and surveillance.

Commissioned by King William I at Christmas 1085, in a climate of political uncertainty, against the looming threat of Danish invasion, the Domesday survey was an administrative endeavour unparalleled in contemporary Western Europe in terms of its scope and ambition. In just eight short months during 1086, the Conqueror's commissioners carried out a more detailed survey of the landed and fiscal resources of England than had ever before been undertaken. The results of this survey survive mainly in the volume known as Great Domesday Book, although information on Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex is found in a smaller draft volume, Little Domesday Book.

That Domesday Book is a remarkable achievement, and a document of singular utility to historians of post-Conquest England, is not disputed. Opinion remains divided, however, on the important question of why the survey was carried out in the first place. What exactly was William hoping to achieve through such close scrutiny of his subjects? Multiple competing explanations have been advanced but most fall into two broad categories. There are those historians who have followed J. H. Round in viewing Domesday as a 'geld book', designed to assess the kingdom's tax liability and increase royal revenues, and there are disciples of V. H. Galbraith, who have stressed the feudal character of the book and characterised it as a codification of the new Norman settlement.

One of the problems for historians is that Great Domesday Book, and the satellite texts which relate to it, are organised simultaneously along geographical and feudal lines. It is therefore possible to draw very different conclusions about the survey depending upon the preconceptions with which one approaches the huge mass of tenurial and fiscal information contained therein. In this respect Domesday offers an important lesson to modern policymakers. Large bodies of data provide an important foundation for enquiry but they can be impenetrable and confusing as well as illuminating. Moreover, in analysing a mass of personal information, a government with an agenda to push will be all too likely to see its own priorities reflected back at it.  

Governments and their political priorities invariably change. In September 1087, only a year after the execution of his great survey, William the Conqueror died on campaign in Normandy. He was succeeded in England by his second son, William II, and work on Domesday seems to have ceased with the death of the king, if indeed it had not already done so. Although there is some evidence of later annotations in draft manuscripts of parts of Domesday, Great Domesday Book itself seems to have become obsolete as a practical administrative document with almost as much rapidity as it was made. Commissioned in response to a specific crisis situation, and offering a dazzlingly detailed snapshot of the English tenurial landscape at a specific moment in time, it was nevertheless of limited use in future crises.

If the government is to avoid similar swift obsolescence for the data that the Investigatory Powers Bill is designed to help it access, it might do well to focus less on the collection of bulk data and more on targeted surveillance, which has been shown to be a more effective counter-terrorism strategy. Otherwise, the investigatory powers currently sought by the Home Secretary may give rise to Domesday-style datasets, which are of more use to future historians than to present security personnel.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


Her research is focused on Exon: The Conquerors' Commissioners: Unlocking the Domesday Survey of SW England. Email: lois.lane@kcl.ac.uk

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