David Bond has an article in yesterday’s Evening Standard about the extent of surveillance in Britain at the moment.
He goes through the usual list of governmental and commercial tracking that goes on, often unacknowledged, from the low-level surveillance of supermarket loyalty cards and freely shared social networking information, through the new NHS database, to the 250 CCTV cameras that populate his neighbourhood in Hoxton, London.
London has been the world’s test bench for a range of tracking gadgets. We have more CCTV than any other city – there are 250 cameras alone within a mile of my house in Hoxton. Again, convenience was at the heart of the sales pitch, this time to the police. Imagine, no more trudging the cold streets. Sit in comfort and watch the crimes unfold. You only need to get out there when there is a problem. And to citizens, the systems are sold by fear. Crime is too widespread to catch on foot, we were told. We need to use the all-seeing eye. So why did the recent House of Lords report conclude that CCTV has had little or no effect in preventing or detecting crime? The massive industry that sells CCTV to government had a ready answer — because it is not really good enough yet. The images are too blurry. There are not enough cameras. Or perhaps they need to be fitted with more advanced software (now being installed in central London stations) that can recognise your face, or even how you walk. Once the technology is perfected, then it will really start to improve our lives. Or will it?
What made the article particular interesting was that he went underground, tried to live a hidden life away from the tracking technology, and hired a firm of private investigators to see how long it would take them to find him from publically available information.
I wanted to know what other people can know about me. What is out there in the public domain? Can it be used to profile me to the extent that a determined investigator, identity thief or stalker, could know what I am likely to do in the future — and catch me?
Within an hour of searching for me (all they had to start with was my name and a recent photo) the private investigators had ordered my wife’s, my own and my daughter’s birth certificates, and my parents’ and my marriage certificates.
They ran my name through a number of profiling systems to give them my credit rating, details of property I owned and my employment history. They also ran a quick profile of me on social networking sites. I had tried to remove myself from Facebook (you can never really remove yourself from Facebook) but they were able to find a good crop of my friends. I am not particularly vulnerable, by the way, anyone could do the same to you.
Before running away, I wanted to find out what data is out there about me as an average Londoner. I compiled a list of 80 organisations — companies, government agencies, social networks — that know about me. I made subject access requests under the Data Protection Act to all of them.
The results were staggering. My desk disappeared under a mountain of paper. It turns out that the DVLA still had records of a driving offence I committed in my late teens. I am 38 and they are supposed to be deleted after 10 years. Amazon provided 120 pages of orders, friends to whom I send presents and even things that I might be interested in, based on my previous browsing.
Transport for London reluctantly sent me a terrifying log of every crossing in and out of the congestion charge zone I have ever made. I had bought a low-emission car to avoid the charge, but they track it anyway. When I called them to ask why, the bemused manager said that the police might need it if I got myself in trouble in the future. “It’s not a police state or anything,” he reassured me.
My bank sent me records of my phone calls. It had lost a cheque in 1997, and the transcript read like a Stasi file. “Mr Bond seems angry. His voice is raised. And he is considering leaving the bank.” Tesco knows what food I like. I suppose that’s not a surprise. But it also has me pegged as, among other things, a new dad, who buys beer on a Friday, and sometimes a little more than average …
In itself, this data was unsettling but what really gave me the fear was when I called these people back and asked them to delete the data. “Do what?” was the standard response. “Delete it, please.” “Oh no, we don’t do that.”
And the penny dropped. Knowledge is power. For governments, this means control, for companies, profit. Once we give this stuff up, we are never getting it back and it sits around forever.
You can see the TV documentary on More4 at 10pm on Tuesday. And look at the website here.