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The Thin Red Line

Or even the last Jack Straw?

Following-on the heels of a warning from Richard Thomas, the UK's Information Commissioner, Britain is at risk “sleepwalking into a surveillance society”, the BBC were, last week, showing how a ‘Black Box’ in your car may be the future of motor insurance, an experiment from Norwich Union which is giving cause for concern.

Presently, we are surrounded by spyware which is increasingly attached to anything capable of passing an electric current. It’s rife on the Internet and Personal Computers, a breakthrough in lens technology will soon make digital cameras as pervasive as cheap calculators and your mobile phone is constantly reporting your position.

Only last summer a service provider demonstrated to me how good location-based technology is and how useful it can be. In a boardroom with a large screen display on the wall, he told me he would show me where his girlfriend was at that moment. He typed in her mobile telephone number into the software and the screen dutifully displayed a map of London, zooming to a spot on the Brompton Road, where a dot flashed. “It’s only good for fifty metres accuracy”, he told me, “but that’s enough for what we need.” Not the police then or the emergency services but anyone with access to the software can find out where you’re shopping?

Norwich Union is trialling a scheme among five thousand policy holders which will have the car do the reporting instead. Based on where you happen to drive and how fast, it will calculate your insurance exposure and calculate your premiums accordingly. “Good news for customers”, in the shape of cheaper policies, we are told but I rather think that instead, there is a profit motive for the insurers, rather like the congestion charge and speed cameras and every other device which leverages advances in technology to squeeze more money from the unhappy consumer.

Like the Information Commissioner I’m equally concerned over how all the data that is routinely captured on our habits, interests and movements is managed and shared in this proud new surveillance society that we are now part of. We both share the fear that the Home Office’s proposed ID card scheme will involve the establishment of a national register of citizens’ personal details that will be accessible to government departments with minimal attention to privacy concerns.

There is, for example confusion with regard to the governance of publicly held information, with vetting and draconian penalties for abuse by directly employed personnel of companies or agencies but frequently no vetting or penalties for abuse by the staff of the contractors and subcontractors who run call centres and routinely enter or access sensitive data for many central and local government departments and agencies. As expressed by EURIM’s Philip Virgo, The sorry state of affairs revealed by the Bichard enquiry is repeated across much of Central and Local Government and lies behind public views on ID Cards, particularly the scepticism that they will be anything other than another spectacular waste of public money. It is also the prime obstacle to delivery of the efficiency agenda shared by both Government and Opposition.

I don’t know about you, but I would rather not have my activities wirelessly reported back to my insurer or an office in Whitehall. Where Norwich Union is concerned, as long as its location-based insurance policies are voluntary, it becomes a question of personal choice but in my experience, any voluntary scheme soon becomes mandatory once a profit motive appears and before you know it, we’ll be submitting to DNA tests for our health insurance too.

I don’t know anyone, other than David Blunkett, who is blind to the objections, who trusts business or government to properly manage and safeguard the increasing volumes of personal data that are being routinely harvested on a day to day basis. In fact, I would argue that we are not sleepwalking into an Orwellian surveillance society; we are rushing headlong into a technology-spun straightjacket without any true regards to the consequences.


Anonymous said…
"David Blunkett, who is blind to the objections"

was that a pun?

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