Horror Borealis and the Data Collection Disease

February 28, 2014

Somewhere in that massive GCHQ building, there must be a whole wing of therapists. One of them is no doubt currently counselling some poor early-morning data analyst that caught the picture of me naked via my web cam. At least, all the reports that I have read over the last day or so say ‘GCHQ have seen you naked’; since I have been known to flick into my office from the shower room (which is next door), I am pretty sure that they really are talking about me. (Not that I recall ever turning on the web cam in that situation but I gather that GCHQ do that remotely whenever they want.) So some poor soul is currently wrestling with the nightmares that any view of my naked body is bound to engender – it will be like the Northern Lights perpetually flashing across his or her brain. There should be a special medal to mark the torture suffered by such a casualty of the war against terror.

The latest reports of interceptions via operation {Optic Nerve: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-26367781} (‘Nerve’ presumably as in ‘cheeky b******’) are just the latest in a long line of scarcely credible stories that reveal the ‘spy agencies’ obsession with gathering data. It is a disease. And it seems to be a disease shared by a number of commercial organisations too – dedicated to soaking up data for the insights it will give them for marketing purposes.

There is a cost to analysing data. It does not matter how cheap storage has become or how cleverly designed the analysis software, there is a cost. I am not sure that the commercial firms harvesting data will always find that it was worthwhile and I strongly suspect that those whose business model is based on selling the data acquired from their users will one day be in the same position as a vendor of sandpits in the Sahara. But at least I am not directly financing their data harvesting.

In contrast, at a time when we are told that government expenditure is to be chopped and that we can no longer afford to fund half the things that I believe to be a valuable indicator of a civilised society, my money is being spent on Optic Nerve. I despair of making the arguments about civil liberty and infringements of freedom stick. They seem always to be met with an appeal to the public’s fears (strong stuff fear) and to the sort of macho myth that would make Bruce Willis blush. But maybe we can stop this security service obsession with collecting data, whatever its nature and whatever its source, by insisting that they demonstrate value for money. It’s quite obvious that they can’t.

Let’s pit the power of mean against fear and see if it has any more success than the cry for liberty. I have a horrible feeling, emanating from somewhere deep in my northern lights, that it might appeal more to the general public than any argument that has been put forward to date.