3 November 2006

Waking up to a surveillance society

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The UK Information Commissioner launched yesterday a public debate on the implications of living in a surveillance society and published a detailed report on the issue.

The report, entitled “A surveillance society”, looks at surveillance in 2006 and projects forward ten years to 2016. It describes a surveillance society as one where technology is extensively and routinely used to track and record our activities and movements. This includes systematic tracking and recording of travel and use of public services, automated use of CCTV, analysis of buying habits and financial transactions, and the work-place monitoring of telephone calls, email and internet use. This can often be in ways which are invisible or not obvious to ordinary individuals as they are watched and monitored, and the report shows how pervasive surveillance looks set to accelerate in the years to come.

Richard Thomas said: “Two years ago I warned that we were in danger of sleepwalking into a surveillance society. Today I fear that we are in fact waking up to a surveillance society that is already all around us. surveillance activities can be well-intentioned and bring benefits. They may be necessary or desirable – for example to fight terrorism and serious crime, to improve entitlement and access to public and private services, and to improve healthcare. But unseen, uncontrolled or excessive surveillance can foster a climate of suspicion and undermine trust.”

The report provides glimpses of life in a surveillance society in 2016, including how:

  • Shoppers will be scanned as they enter stores, their clothes recognised through unique RFID tags embedded in them. This will be matched with loyalty card data to affect the way they are treated as they do their shopping, with some given preferential treatment over others
  • Cars linked to global satellite navigation systems which will provide the quickest route to avoid current congestion, automatically debit the mileage charge from bank accounts and allow police to monitor the speed of all cars and to track selected cars more closely
  • Employees will be subject to biometric and psychometric tests plus lifestyle profiles with diagnostic health tests common place. Jobs are refused to those who are seen as a health risk or don’t submit to the tests. Staff benefit packages are drawn up depending upon any perceived future health problems that may affect their productivity.
  • Schools will introduce card systems to allow parents to monitor what their children eat, their attendance, record of achievement and drug test results
  • Facial recognition systems will be used to monitor our movements using tiny cameras embedded in lampposts and in walls, with “friendly flying eyes in the sky” (unmanned aerial vehicles) keeping an eye on us from above
  • Older people will feel more isolated as sensors and cameras in their home provide reassurance to their families who know they are safe therefore pay fewer family visits.
  • Prosperous individuals will start to use personal information management services to monitor their ‘data shadow’ to make sure they are not disadvantaged by any of the vast quantities of information held about them being wrong or out of date. Others without the resources do this will be forced to stand on the other side of a new ‘digital divide’.

Go to report download page
– Articles from The Guardian and BBC News

In a related story, The Guardian reports that according to experts “the internet will hold so much digital data in five years that it will be possible to find out what an individual was doing at a specific time and place”.

“Nigel Gilbert, a professor heading a Royal Academy of Engineering study into surveillance, said people would be able to sit down and type into Google ‘what was a particular individual doing at 2.30 yesterday and would get an answer’.”

“The answer would come from a range of data, for instance video recordings or databanks which store readings from electronic chips. Such chips embedded in people’s clothes could track their movements. He told a privacy conference the internet would be capable of holding huge amounts of data very cheaply and patterns of information could be extracted very quickly. “Everything can be recorded for ever,” he said.”

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