Tom Hunter reports from the latest meeting of GlobalNet21
Photo: Man With Movie Camera (dir. Vertov, 1939)
It’s a whole wild world of surveillance out there, and we know the act of observation can’t help but change the behaviour of the subject being observed. The crucial question is not are we being changed, but how much?
Does it matter more if the watcher is really watching or simply fulfilling an automated subroutine?
Is interpretation of our data potentially more sinister than the surveillance itself?
Does anyone really believe that having nothing to hide means having nothing to fear?
I’m attending a public event coordinated by GlobalNet21, and am not immune to the irony that the debate I’m about to watch is taking place in the Thatcher room of Portcullis House, Westminster, and that I’ve already had to be scanned and badged before I can even get inside.
Liberal Democrat MP Julien Huppert believes that “Britain is sleepwalking into becoming a surveillance state, the like of which has never been seen before in peacetime,” and from the snatches of mostly whispered conversation in the room I can hear as I walk in, a lot of people seem to agree with him. Even the portrait of Maggie on the wall looks less than ironclad in her certainty tonight, and there’s an expectant air of science fiction in the room as Huppert refers us not to Orwell ‘s usual suspect classic to set the scene but to Ken MacLeod’s recent novel Intrusion as a warning of things to come (or maybe already here).
A few stories you probably won’t be reading about in the headlines to get things started:
Last year, says Huppert, the UK police made over 570,000 individual requests for data from telephone network operators. They can’t get the actual chatter of your conversations yet but the when, where and who you called are all there up for grabs. Certainly some of these are going to be of crucial value – a missing person, or a potential terrorist perhaps – but half a million calls? That’s a lot of missing people up to no good.
In other news, it’s widely held that Google has already developed an instant face-recognition technology that can be used with mobile phone cameras and video, only they haven’t chosen to release it due to prevailing concerns about what a networked and mobile populace might unleash with that kind of surveillance tech in their pockets.
And finally there’s Edward Snowden, whistleblower poster boy du jour and currently a man adrift without a nationality but entirely unable to remove himself from the grid of public attention. Snowden is perhaps most interesting for the implied parts of his story that haven’t been so widely reported on. The press’s focus on the human angle obscures a wider, unwelcome truth: that if one government contractor can so easily steal over 1.7 million secure documents and make them public, how many more people might there be walking out of government buildings with illicit flash drives in their pockets but no compulsion to go public with their trove of digital treasure?
So, how easy is it for a country to sleepwalk itself into becoming a surveillance state?
One surprising suggestion is the importance of national narrative. Visit a nation that’s lived under the Stasi or their equivalent and you’ll likely find at least a robust public dialogue around key issues of public and private space, if not outright activism spread across all different social, economic and political divides. Britain’s hard-fought-for freedoms of the past century may very well be part of the modern problem now. Quite simply, our surveillance antibodies are compromised by a national identity that equates the intelligence agencies with James Bond and George Smiley, Alan Turing and Bletchley Park. When called upon to do their duty, our dashing British spies will even jump out of helicopters with the Queen of England to launch sporting events if they have to, global audiences and secret identities be damned.
But what if you’re not British but, for instance, Polish and you’ve recently arrived in Britain? One of what the panel termed “Her Majesty’s loyal immigrants”. Imagine your name isn’t Bond but rather a lovely 21-letter Polish surname, and it’s being entered into new and ever-more complex databases every day, and then imagine there’s spelling mistake in the data entry.
It doesn’t take a rogue UKIP supporter to mistype your name into a database, but if it happens (and we’re told it’s entirely possible) you might just find there are worse places to be than trapped under the spotlight of continual state attention. Having your name disconnected from your postcode for instance - and hence from your credit rating and other key cornerstones of your residential identity. Concern over the surveillance state isn’t just over the data being captured, but also about our limited access to it. How can we know when mistakes are made, and how can we prove ourselves when they happen to us?
Courts now regularly recognise a bias nicknamed the CSI effect, with juries proving noticeably less willing to convict if there’s insufficient forensic evidence (your DNA isn’t at the crime scene for example) but much more inclined towards conviction if there is forensic evidence in play. Genetic surveillance via the UK’s National Criminal Intelligence DNA database may appear unbiased, but couple a tendency to jury conviction with the fact that, for instance, 40% of black males under the age of 30 are included on that database as compared to much lower percentages of other males, and we might begin to worry about how surveillance is mainly visited upon the margins of society. Likewise CCTV footage in the courtroom has been praised in some areas for its ability to humanise a crime, but is this really such a good thing in a space where the objective weighing of evidence is supposed to be of paramount importance?
Of course we’re all busy doing our best to humanise our data ourselves, not to mention spreading it dandelion-like across as many social media networks as possible, up to and including London rioters using wanted pictures taken from CCTV grabs as their Facebook profile pictures. Not such a clever move when you think about it; but then, neither is telling Twitter you’re off on holiday for a week or linking to your mother on Facebook. Not because she’ll start embarrassing you in your newsfeed, but more because it’s a very simple process to follow connections and quickly infer your mother’s maiden name (right after checking out the date of all your birthday greetings and thus figuring out two of your main security checks in the time it takes to watch a skateboarding cat video).
We put out this data for free, and most of the time this works for us just fine, providing we’re happy to ignore (or even click) the best efforts of the advertising industry to attract our fleeting attentions. Perhaps the real cost isn’t in putting our data out into the world where it can be surveilled by ‘Do No Evil’ corporations, but rather in trying to claim it back once it is out there?
Accessing your own digital shadow, or better, getting parts of it deleted, is a challenge to give even Commander Bond pause for thought. It may be theoretically possible, for example, to file a Freedom of Information request for CCTV footage of yourself, but the cost of obscuring other people’s identity before releasing it means in practice you’ll never receive a byte. Likewise, cost is cited as the main reason information remains undeleted. Storage is cheap, but effective deletion carries a heavy price tag for cash-strapped agencies and profit-conscious corporates alike. Data collects long past any meaningful use to the original collector. Perhaps they have an eye on long-term futures and a potential resale value to tomorrow’s data-miners?
Ultimately we have to ask ourselves what is the message that is being conveyed by our surveillance state? Are we safer and happier, or are we merely living under an illusion of greater security while our unconscious behaviors are being modified in ways even the observers can’t begin to guess at?
The challenge of surveillance is often positioned as a tug-of-war between the twin poles of liberty and security, but we should ask ourselves if these really are tradeable commodities. Perhaps our observed reality is not so much a political balancing act as a perpetual state of surveillance creep, as typified by the “thin” protection of watchful CCTV.
Does surveillance really mean what we think it means, and is it really the most useful tool for the jobs we require of it? Security cameras may prove effective enough at curbing certain forms of planned criminal activity - car theft for one - but they are dismal at preventing the forms of crime we instinctively fear such as violence and terrorist activity. Meanwhile the ring of vehicle registration cameras originally installed to combat IRA incursions are now demobbed and finding gainful employment defending London from congestion charge cheats.
Most telling in the argument against the creeping surveillance state is the absence of evidence that any of this really works at all as prevention. It merely authenticates necessary detective work, and lends a grainy sheen of authenticity to our 24-hour news analysis.
The GlobalNet21 event concludes with a single observable fact: for all of the data collected and interpreted and locked away, no satisfying evidence has yet come out of the other side of the black box to prove a convincing case for its existence.
Later, making my way home through the London Underground, I think I hear a busker singing Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower.
“There must be some way out of here,” he sings, but the only exit I can see lies out beyond the Oyster barriers and back under the loving grace of the mobile phone towers, pinging me with welcomes of electronic connectivity.
In EXIT STRATEGIES, out now: Off-grid life is no picnic in Adrian Ellis’s story “The Lost Emotion”.