Welcome to 1984: our new surveillance society

Sat, 08/12/2012 - 15:00
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People in Britain’s cities have become accustomed to being monitored by CCTV cameras almost from the moment that they step out of their front doors.

This pervasive visual recording is claimed to be useful for our 'protection', but there is not much evidence that it actually has a deterrent effect on crime (it didn't do much to deter the rioters in 2011, in particular!).

The proliferation of CCTV is just one symptom of the tendency of government, businesses, police and security services to try to gather as much information as possible about as many people as possible -- and ideally about everyone.

George Orwell's fictional dystopia of a regime where everyone is monitored by a totalitarian government now seems like a chillingly accurate picture of our present society: in particular, the Communications Data Bill being drafted by our government proposes recording every email, social media message and website visit that anyone makes, for one year. This is being promoted as an 'anti-terrorism' measure, but its real intended scope is far wider, just as the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) has been used by councils to snoop on and prosecute people using the wrong dustbins for rubbish!

We can envisage people being prosecuted for 'Islamophobia' simply because they post comments on a forum objecting to the building of a local mosque, for example.
In opposition, the Conservatives and Liberals opposed Labour's attempts at introducing ID cards and 90-day detention without charge, but now they are in power they are advocating equally draconian measures, all ostensibly for our 'protection'.

Meanwhile, a range of even more invasive surveillance technologies are being introduced to extend monitoring to all aspects of people's lives. At work, time and attendance systems are used to precisely record employee's work time and work rate, with the purpose of 'reducing costs', ie., worker's salaries. Linked to other systems, these attendance monitors can also identify which worker was responsible for a particular product, and hence can be used to assign blame in the case of product malfunctions. It's also now usual for companies to monitor their employee's internet use at work -- and to discipline staff who use the internet 'inappropriately'. CCTV is also used by companies to spy on their employees.

Monitoring of an individual's location can be carried out covertly by utilising any networked processing device they are carrying: mobile phone, laptop, etc. Software to turn mobile phones into surveillance devices is widely available on the internet, and can be used by individuals (eg., to spy on a spouse's movements) in addition to government agencies. The increasing use of processing chips in credit cards, travel passes, etc., also allows the detailed recording of locations and routes: every journey and transaction you make leaves its digital trail which can then be accessed by any number of people, authorised or not.

Online privacy is already very limited, even without the Communications Data Bill. Knowingly or unknowingly, people publicise huge amounts of information about themselves whenever they use the internet. Every time you access a website you provide information to the organisation running the site, such as your user name on your computer, your host internet address, etc. Social media sites such as Facebook enable your personal information to be accessed and collated by anyone with a browser and a network connection.

To cope with this vast flood of data on individuals, new computing techniques have been invented, such as 'data mining', to find correlations in the mass of information and infer new 'facts' about people based on this.

Future technologies promise 'wearable computers' that could record our every move and conversation, and store all this information indefinitely, as an unlimited digital memory of our lives. Government interception of such data would bring us exactly to the vision of 1984.

What can be done to assert our right to privacy? First, sellers of software and devices which collect personal information should be required to show that strong levels of security have been implemented to prevent unauthorised access to that information. Secondly, stronger restrictions should be placed on the collection of personal information: only the police and security services should be able to build repositories of online activity data, and should be required to give justifications to judges in order to set up electronic surveillance of specific individuals.

We can also assert our right to privacy by limiting the amount of information we make public: using non-contract mobile phones and SIMs, for example, paying by cash or postal order instead of by cards, using alternative names and addresses when setting up internet service contracts, using diverse email accounts and online identities, etc. This isn't paranoia, but a valid defense against intrusion into our privacy by the surveillance society that technology and governments have created.

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