Mon, Aug 27, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Surveillance threatens to take over our lives

Credit cards, mobile phones and log-ins monitor us at work and play -- and now there is the prospect of surveillance that will manage us, rather than the other way around

By Simon Caulkin  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

Some radical friends didn't share the enthusiastic reception for Lives of Others, the haunting recent film about life under the Stasi, the East German secret police.

It wasn't the acting or even the Big-Brother plot of hidden manipulation and control that they objected to -- what got up their noses was the complacent implicit assumption that the West wasn't an equally enthusiastic user of similar surveillance techniques, even if mostly (so far as we know) for commercial rather than political ends.

They have a point.

"We live in a surveillance society," was the bald assessment of a report for the UK's information commissioner last year that catalogued in detail the technologies and processes by which Britons are logged, profiled and digitized daily at work and at play through credit, loyalty, travel and swipe cards, mobile phones, congestion charges, work log-ins and activity monitors, interactions with public and private-sector call centers, not to mention the ubiquitous CCTV cameras.

One striking measure of the burgeoning of surveillance is the growth of the industry that provides it -- in the three years to last year the top 100 US surveillance companies had doubled in value to US$400 billion. Surveillance is big business.

Even individual surveillance uses are hard to track and regulate, as technology runs ahead of the ability to foresee its implications. But in combination with "function creep" -- where a mechanism set up for one purpose, like a public transport swipe card, is then used for another, such as tracking movement -- increasingly complex networks of information-sharing across private and public sectors, from credit-rating to benefits agencies and hospitals, make it almost impossible for people to assert their right to know the information held about them.

It's like a "first life" version of the virtual-reality Web site -- whether we like it or not we all have shadowy "avatars," digital doubles of ourselves, assembled by computer from dozens of different database components and logged and managed in ways of which we are only dimly aware.

Although untethered from the office by mobiles and laptops, some remote workers find their digital selves more controlled and monitored than before. For consumers and citizens, racial and postcode profiling and credit rating are just the beginning. When you contact some call centers you are categorized by level of spending and served accordingly -- can price goods differently for different customers.

Not all surveillance is bad -- accurate records can protect the innocent as well as identify wrongdoers -- and some of it, as the information commissioner said, is an inescapable part of modern life.

The technology itself is neutral, as Lives of Others demonstrates, but the use that authorities make of it is the problem.

The report warns that it is naive and dangerous to sleepwalk into a world where gathering, processing and sorting personal data is no longer just an overlay, like CCTV cameras, but a part of life's basic infrastructure, without debate or understanding what it means.

Part of the danger is cock-up rather than conspiracy -- at a very basic level so much of the information gathered is just wrong. One study found that 22 percent of a sample of entries into a UK police computer contained errors, even when double-checked. Names are misspelled and addresses wrongly coded. The impact of such errors is compounded by sharing. What's more, the errors are not remedied by the enthusiastic addition of more technology -- a managerialist solution that often makes the original problem still harder to unravel, as well as locking us in to technology and expertise beyond democratic control.

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