Ever since – in fact well before – George Orwell spun the threads of paranoia, surveillance and propaganda together into the masterful 1984, people have harboured concerns that ‘they’ were watching ‘us’.
We used to live in a time when these kind of concerns were the domain of gaunt, hollow-eyed men who drank too much coffee, and could safely be dismissed as fantasy.
Over the past few months, though, numerous articles in the mainstream press have highlighted the range of government surveillance projects which are currently either under consideration for approval, or in the course of being implemented, and frankly their extent and implications are reminiscent of the future depicted by Orwell himself.
Let’s pull back for a second, though, because this is a problem which has two parts, both faces of the same proverbial coin; and one face at least is of our own making.
Anyone that has grown up in our generation will know that we are becoming digital creatures. Our physical bodies are no less present, but our very notions of the construction of identity and self, and the nature of relationships, are vastly different to generations that have gone before. Electronic communication in general, and the internet specifically, has changed everything.
Most of us are now completely at ease with the concept of social networking sites. You build yourself a page which acts as a portal for your family, friends, and the rest of the world to interact with you. But by offering us new modes and methods of communication, the medium has changed the nature of the message. We have all become social broadcasters, comfortable with transmitting details of our lives in a variety of different formats – hourly updates on our thoughts and feelings, weekly photographic documentation of our exploits, mass messaging to harness the attention of hundreds or even thousands of people for whatever cause takes our interest, be it a political protest or the hottest new video on YouTube.
Whilst a lot of young people almost instinctively understood the new possibilities, not to mention fun, afforded by making certain aspects of our lives public, maybe the lightning-fast rise of Facebook and similar sites has not left us enough time to develop a similar instinct for the need for privacy. Most of us have, at some point, face-stalked someone that we had a crush on, or virulently disliked, or maybe just found interesting. And what we commonly find is that it can be frighteningly easy to piece together a comprehensive picture of someone’s character, background, opinions and regular hang-out spots just by using Facebook and Google.
The lifestyles we lead today are leaving ever-greater traces across cyberspace. If you have a Googlemail email address, a computer program automatically scans your messages for key words which might help to tailor advertising to your interests. Amazon.com keeps a record of all the items you buy and view on the site. It also knows where you live, this being a necessity for delivering anything bought online. Loyalty cards of any kind will keep a record of exactly what you have bought at the store issuing them, and Oyster cards, now made as good as compulsory by the prices of one-off fares in London, keep records of all of the journeys made by the card, though they are no longer registered to the name of a single user as was originally intended.
The thing about all of this is that it makes perfect sense. Facebook can be a great way to keep in touch with friends in geographically distant places, just as Amazon’s CD recommendations can be a great way to discover artists you might not otherwise have heard of. But any organisation able to draw together all of this information from different sources and centralise it would have access to a massive amount of information on any given individual.
With that in mind, it’s time to focus back to the government.
Just a few weeks ago, the Guardian published a story stating that the government is currently drawing up plans which will give security services far greater powers to access the information being held by online services. Under the pretense that terrorists may be using these websites to communicate, the legislation would compel service providers to store more information on their clients, and to disclose this information to the government when deemed necessary.
Far more worrying than this are the plans being laid out by an innocent sounding four letter moniker: GCHQ. Government Communications Headquarters is the branch of the intelligence services charged with communications surveillance, or, essentially, spying on the population. Their recently announced Interception Modernisation Programme, the exact details of which are top secret, aims to build a single database in which will be stored the details of every piece of electronic communication in Britain.
Every piece of electronic communication in Britain.
That’s emails, text messages, phone calls, faxes, records of every website visited by every internet user, all brought together under the same roof to be stored, cross-referenced and analysed: cyber-spying raised to the power of ten. Even for those who profess to have ‘nothing to hide’, this must set alarm bells ringing.
Very well, you might say, the world of digital communication is always going to be conducive to spying, and better the government does it than the terrorists; there’s no way the same amount of surveillance could be conducted in the physical world, so we should appreciate the privacy we have here and get on with our lives.
Well, here’s another four letter acronym for you: RFID. Radio Frequency Identification is, for better or for worse, the future. You might have already come across a RFID chip in pretty much any object you can ‘beep’ across a scan point to operate something without a laser having to read it optically. A biometric passport contains one of them, as does an Oyster card, as do anti-theft tags in CDs. They can be tiny, millimetres across, are only set to get smaller in years to come, and can be produced at a very low cost.
The RFID is a tiny radio circuit which encodes a small amount of information, readable to an appropriate receiver. In terms of its applications, comparisons can be made with another piece of commonplace identification technology, the barcode. Many large retail companies are now aiming for the adoption of RFID in the near future, and it’s expected that within the next decade or so it will have replaced the barcode as the primary way to identify consumer goods. It is also poised to become successor to the currently contact-dependent chip-and-PIN system in modern bank cards, facilitating ‘wave-and-pay’ systems.
The use of these chips changes the balance when it comes to surveillance. Whereas barcodes require direct line of sight to transfer their information, RFID, being based on radio waves, does not, and chips can be read through layers of fabric, wood, living tissue and even brick walls. Though designed with a standard operating distance of a few feet or less, demonstrations have shown that specially adapted devices can read them at distances of over 50 metres.
Hypothetically speaking, if the government did introduce compulsory national ID cards involving RFID tags (as is probable), then anyone with the right equipment would be able to scan a crowd of people and bring up the precise details of everyone in it. In government hands, this sounds suspiciously like the makings of a police state. In criminal hands, it sounds like a massive gateway for identity fraud. And once RFID is integrated with every consumer product, then anything we buy could become a miniature beacon potentially signalling our whereabouts, linked to our name by the bank card used to pay for it. We would be surrounded by a web of smart-objects, each feeding back information about us to any system capable of collating it.
This may be starting to sound like borderline paranoia, but it is not idle speculation. These developments are all already here in some form, they just can’t yet be harnessed for the type of surveillance suggested. Richard Thomas, the UK Information Commissioner, famously said that we were in danger of “sleepwalking into a surveillance society”, and this is a fitting description; it is not so much that our privacy is being taken from us, more that we are letting go of it complacently.
We need to be more aware of the information that we are transmitting about ourselves both directly and indirectly every day. Though social networks and online shopping are a big part of modern life, we are often not obliged to give away half as much information as we choose to, nor do we have to passively accept the creation of a national identity register or other government sponsored schemes. If our right to civil liberties is to be a key battleground for the new century, then we can’t risk losing it without putting up a fight.