"Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we've been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?" - Ronald Reagan
"CCTV ... appears to make little long-term impact on the late-night violence it is supposed to curb ..." - Richard Thomas
Richard Thomas, the government's Information Commissioner, has recently published a report on the Surveillance Society in Britain and elsewhere. It's an excellent and completely readable document - read the whole thing here, and also this interview with the man himself.
If anyone's in any doubt about the extent of official and commercial spying in this country, consider these little snippets, some of which are from the report and some from elsewhere …
The report predicts that by 2016 shoppers could be scanned as they enter stores, schools could bring in cards allowing parents to monitor what their children eat, and jobs may be refused to applicants who are seen as a health risk.
Britain is the worst Western democracy at protecting individual privacy. The two worst countries in the 36-nation survey are Malaysia and China, and Britain is one of the bottom five with "endemic surveillance".
Cars will soon be linked to global satellite navigation systems (many already are, of course) which will provide the quickest route to avoid current congestion. The system can also automatically debit the mileage charge from bank accounts and allow police to monitor the speed of all cars and track selected cars more closely.
Schools are planning to introduce card systems to allow parents to monitor what their children eat, their attendance, record of achievement and drug test results
Facial recognition systems may soon be used to monitor our movements using tiny cameras embedded in lampposts and in walls, with "friendly flying eyes in the sky" (unmanned aerial vehicles) keeping an eye on us from above
Older people will feel more isolated as sensors and cameras in their home provide reassurance to their families who know they are safe therefore pay fewer family visits
Police files hold the DNA of more than 50,000 children who have committed no offence. And that's only the tip of the iceberg - Britain now has the largest DNA database in the world.
"Better safe than sorry" stands as a motto that supports the considerable rise in social-care referrals for child-abuse, and that gives a green light to the precautionary surveillance of groups, categories and individuals by the public services." - Information Commissioner's report
"The USVISIT border control system for a UK citizen crossing the US border mines some 30 databases, from previous entry and exit data to social security records and information on exchange students." - Information Commissioner's report
New TV-on-demand systems like TiVo make it possible to monitor which television programmes you watch
In February 2006 the EU Data Retention Directive and UK Home Office proposed to force mobile and landline telephone companies and internet providers to retain traffic date for at least two years and make them available to law enforcement agencies. They'll be able to track the telephone calls you made, the emails you sent and the websites you visited two years ago.
The ECHELON system operated by the American National Security Agency at Menwith in Yorkshire routinely filters all telecommunications traffic passing through the UK and scans it for certain key words, phrases and meanings. There is a suggestion that it will soon be able to recognise individual voices.
There are 4.2 million CCTV cameras in Britain, one for every fourteen people. An individual may be filmed as much as 300 times a day, despite the fact that the Home Office have admitted that "the CCTV schemes that have been assessed had little overall effect on crime levels".
On the roads, speed cameras increased from 300,000 in 1996 to over 2 million in 2004. In March 2005 the Association of Chief Police Officers demanded a national network of ANPR (automatic number plate recognistion) using police, local authority, Highways Agency other partner and commercial sector cameras including those in town centres and high streets, with a national ANPR Centre capable of storing 50 million reads a day for two years. It is also planned to include all garage forecourt cameras. So they'll know where you went two years ago - long after you've forgotten it yourself. And they'll even know how much petrol you used to get there.
Every time you use a credit card, bank card, mobile phone, or the Internet; every time you buy something in a shop or withdraw money from the bank; every time you use a supermarket loyalty card, take part in a survey, join a focus group, enter a promotional competition, talk to a call centre, or take out credit, it creates a "data trail" and is entered on somebody's database somewhere. Increasingly these databases are linked, enabling your profile to be stored either for law enforcement or commercial purposes - where you go, who you talk to, what your interests are (even those you're ashamed of), how much you spend, what you buy, what you say and what you think.
The planned NHS database will contain all the information your doctor has ever held about you. Doctor/patient confidentiality will be a thing of the past. Twenty years ago you went to the doctor feeling depressed and anxious and told him you'd suddenly started fancying the thirteen-year-old girl next door? You'd better hope that he had the decency to note down what tranquillisers he prescribed, but not the reason.
The 2003 Criminal Justice Act empowered the police to take fingerprints and DNA samples from everyone they arrest, whether or not they are subsequently charged, and whether or not they are found guilty. There has been plenty of anecdotal evidence that they are also taking fingerprints and DNA from innocent witnesses, too. The National DNE Database now holds 3.45 million samples - including 40% of black males, 13% of Asian males and 9% of white males. The Drugs Act of 2005 gave police the power to test for drugs all those arrested for theft, robbery, burglary and begging, regardless of guilt.
RFID chips - tiny microchips that emit a weak radio signal - can be built into the goods or clothes you buy in the shop, enabling the shop to keep tabs on your use of the item - and, of course, on you if you're wearing it. The technology is in its infancy, but the proposed UK ID Card scheme is likely to use it so that as you walk down the street you can be spotted by reading devices fixed to lamp-posts or carried by policemen. They can even be implanted in animals and humans. Race horses already have them, a Spanish night-club has offered them to members so they don't have to carry cash, a firm in America has implanted two in workers so they can access a secure part of the building, and Hitachi have been working with the European Bank on the idea of putting them in bank-notes. There are technology websites where the idea of implanting everybody is under serious discussion.
"Data creep" is the name given to the natural process by which information gathered for one specific purpose is later used for other purposes. An example is the London congestion charge. The ANPR technology was originally developed for the military and installed to find IRA bombers. Now it's being used to collect funds for the local authority. They may tell you they're using new technology for sincere and beneficial purposes, but sooner or later your details will "creep" into a dozen databases for purposes you haven't even thought of yet.
"The heart of New Labour's modernisation agenda has been to transform a set of disparate agencies into a coordinated and joined-up system with a huge investment in IT provision." - Information Commissioner's report
The technology is never infallible. It is estimated that the biometric data stored on the UK ID card will fail to be recognised in one card in six; the much-vaunted Parental Support Agency computer system was a costly joke; the US military's Facial Recognition system only works 74% of the time; ANPR can make mistakes; the Criminal Records Bureau recently admitted that 2,700 people had been wrongly identified as paedophiles, and 22% of the records in the Police National Database contain operator errors. That's fine until it's you that's identified as a paedophile, and your numberplate turns up in a child-murder enquiry at the other end of the country.
When you telephone a call-centre, you often have to identify yourself first. A computer then identifies you as a high-spender or a low-spender. According to the Information Commissioner's report, if you're a high-spender you'll get through more quickly and will be answered by a more skilled operative.
The Home Office is proposing to improve flows of information between different government agencies including the Serious Organised Crime Agency, the National Police Computer, the Criminal Records Bureau, HM Revenue and Customs, the DVLA, insurance and MOT databases and the Passport Office. There is even a Ministerial Committee on Data Sharing.
The Nectar loyalty card has information on 50% of the UK population. The Abacus system run by 216 catalogue companies has details of 26 million customers.
In 1980, Post Office Telephones became BT. It was almost immediately privatised, and then largely fragmented into a host of commercial providers. What do you think happened to all the customer information it held?
The American National Security Agency has forged links with the major American software manufacturers and persuaded them to ensure that levels of security and encryption in export versions of their software are lower than US versions, thus rendering them easier to "crack".
The government has never explained with any clarity just what their ID Cards are for. Apart from the obvious things like crime and terrorism, there is also the suggestion that they will help avoid identity fraud. To do this, they will have to be linked to the systems of the major banks and other commercial organisations.
We have not given, and cannot give, our consent to many of the surveillance practices that are already common. We have not consented to have our number plates read by cameras; we have not consented to being filmed while walking through the town centre; arrestees do not consent to giving fingerprints and DNA samples. And we think this is a democracy?
The government seem to have turned things on their heads with regard to public services. Once upon a time we all thought that services like libraries, the NHS, the DHSS, passports, legal protection, the national road network etc. were provided for all eligible citizens. But it's in the nature of datasystems to classify people into arbitrary categories. Now the emphasis is increasingly on seeking to identify and exclude anyone whose face (or spending-power or lifestyle or turban) doesn't fit. Exclusion extends to commercial pricing policies. Amazon have been charging different prices for the same goods to different customers - based no doubt on their data profiles.
WHAT WE CAN'T DO ABOUT IT
It's not going to go away. People in powerful positions will never pass up the chance to be even more powerful. And knowledge is power
When any new piece of technology is invented, some tosser will find a use for it. Sometimes that use is beneficial. Sometimes it ain't
Legislation has its limits. You can make laws that say "it's illegal to hold this or that kind of information, or to hold it for more than a certain length of time". But how do you police it? With great difficulty, that's how.
WHAT YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT
Wear a hoodie, or a big hat
In the town centre or other public place, take your coat off and carry it sometimes
Walk with a limp you don't have
Drive a very dirty car
Don't buy sat-nav
Make all your car journeys by back roads, avoiding motorways and trunk roads. Or ride a bike.
Do all your internet surfing using a proxy server. Easier said than done, unfortunately
Never send an email read-only receipt
Never reply to an unsolicited email
Don't use a mobile phone
Have just one bank account, withdraw cash from it and don't use a credit, bank or loyalty card. Bank notes don't have chips in them yet
When they ask you questions, lie like a trooper
Don't offer yourself to the police as a witness
Don't tell your doctor any more than he needs to know. Or anyone else for that matter
Apply for a new passport NOW, before they make you have an ID card as well
Refuse to carry an ID card when the time comes. If enough of us do so, they'll have a job to prosecute us all
Register with the free Telephone and Mailing Preference Services. These services will block unwanted 'cold calls' from companies and curtail about 95% of unwanted mail
Opt out of part of the Electoral Roll. You can remove your details from the section of the Electoral Roll sold to companies for commercial purposes
Write frequently to your MP and protest about all this surveillance. But use a false name and address
Don't fly. For foreign holidays your best bet is to travel by coach and ferry
Don't ever say "I've got nothing to hide, so why should I worry?" In fact, if anyone emails the GOS and says that, he'll find out where you live and come round your house one night. You won't like that. It's precisely because you've got nothing to hide that you should object to being spied upon. If you're so whiter than white, why should you be tagged and listed and registered like a paedophile or a cow? I imagine the Jews in Nazi Germany thought they had nothing to hide, and look what happened to them (cheap, I know, but apposite)
Quietly resist - by being more intelligent and thoughtful than they are. Just be aware, all the time. If you own a house or a car, if you travel or receive education or get ill or do any of the normal things in life, you'll be giving up information about yourself - it's unavoidable, and not necessarily a bad thing in all cases. But you don't have to make things any easier for the nosy, manipulative b*st*rds …
And may God help us all. We're going to need it.
either on this site or on the World Wide Web.
This site created and maintained by PlainSite