Big Brother: Grateful or Worried?

August 4, 2009

When two young police officers came knocking at the kitchen door on Tuesday, I was perplexed. With loved ones far away, my first thoughts were horrific. Being an incorrigible sexist optimist, my next thought was that it was a bizarre stripogram, paid for by an unknown benefactor unsure of my sexual preferences. My third thought, ‘What have I done?’ was the right one. It transpired that, in my natural desire to fill the day with useful toil, I had gone one step too far in my search for efficiency; I had filled the car with diesel speedily and left the garage with minimal delay but the pedants at my local garage felt that I had omitted an essential step in the process – payment.

The female officer was charmingly (and bizarrely) apologetic, thoroughly amused by my absent-mindedness; apparently she became convinced that it was just forgetfulness when watching the CCTV tapes and noting that I was leaning against the car while filling the tank, full face to the camera and singing. Apparently those with the intent of avoiding payment wear hoods, can rarely carry a tune and tend not to have cars that are registered at an address a mile up the road. Frankly I was amused too (at least until I discovered my wife had taken the incident as grounds for booking me into a care home), although I was genuinely contrite later when I reflected on how much police time my forgetfulness had wasted. I promptly went down the garage and paid, offering my apologies to the staff (who were clearly also amused).

So no great harm done and just a laugh at my expense for most of Wiltshire, half the population of Tyne and Wear and Greater Manchester and a goodly number of South Africans (my family, who know that my memory is of the {Tom Rush kind:}, have tirelessly recounted the tale to all who know me and many who don’t).

It took an unrelated tale from a neighbour to make me start to wonder how I felt about the surveillance element. She had been contacted to see if she might have information about a recent tragic accident on the A4 as her car had been observed to pass the spot on a regular basis on Sunday evenings, which was when the accident had occurred. Apparently a camera stationed just a few yards from my house tracks all the traffic on the A4.

From being grateful that CCTV combined with the DVLC database had saved me from error, I began to feel worried that my every move was being watched. And that is pretty much how most of the population feel about CCTV and government databases: uncertain whether to be grateful for the extra security or concerned that their essential privacy is being invaded.

There are big, wide-ranging issues here, most of which far exceed my pay grade, but I want to focus on one that quite shocked me. It was the realisation that I believe that our right to privacy includes the right to do wrong without being found out. I don’t want the freedom never to pay for diesel again (although…), but let’s consider speed limits. I drove 600 miles over the weekend and kept to the speed limit for a pretty limited amount of time. In built-up areas? Yes, some of the time, and certainly on the last leg of the journey on B roads where 60 mph is a recipe for your own quick death. But I clocked up mile after mile of driving within the 50 mph limit through road works on the M1 simply because the average speed limit cameras were watching me. How would I feel about every inch of motorway being covered by such cameras so that the 70 mph limit is actually observed, fuel consumption plummets (saving the planet, at least a bit) and lives are saved? Not all that enthusiastic, since you ask. So that’s one area where I want the freedom to do wrong.

How do I feel about a database that logs terrorist calls and covert observation that tracks their movements so that bombings are stopped? I am very keen indeed on such steps, especially if implemented by Hermione Norris.

I am by no means alone. People generally want the freedom to do some wrong. But exactly where in the spectrum do we want that freedom to stop? The spectrum starts with nose-picking and low tipping, moves through skiving, child slapping and adultery, merges with speeding, expenses exaggeration, illegal file-sharing and tax evasion and ends with big bad crimes like murder and terrorism. Most people say they want the freedom to stop round about ‘Richard’ but, if they dared, they would admit that they would really rather that it stopped somewhere a bit after ‘York’, but definitely before ‘Battle’.

But I suspect that this sort of choice is a big fat illusion. The latest ICO statement on the {Interception Modernisation Programme:} subscribes to the illusion by recognising ‘the value that communications data has for the prevention and detection of crime and the prosecution of offenders’ and then worrying about large databases and the absence of ‘justification for mandating the collection of all possible communications data on all subscribers by all communication service providers’. So let’s just collect the data on the criminals and leave the rest of the (relatively) law-abiding citizens alone. It would be a fine trick if they could do it.

Just as I am impatient with those who claim privacy rights for public acts (blogging detectives and Street View ‘victims’ come to mind), I have little time for those who pretend that the true defence of privacy is limiting the use to which information is put. That’s useful, perhaps even vital (which is just as well as it is the cornerstone of data protection), but it is not true privacy. In particular, one can still have a surveillance society even though there are many limits on the use of the information gathered. In such a society, we are likely to lose the freedom to do wrong, for who will dare to defend it?