We should not fear the data state

Ever wondered how mobile phone companies know where you are, in order to route the phone calls through to you? The phone in your pocket is keeping a constant “chatter” with the network informing them of your location. That’s how the police can track you down if you ever become a fugitive. They can tell where you are within a 10ft radius. And if you run, every 30 seconds your phone will inform them, and inform them, and inform them. You were never told this when you bought your phone. No one ever told you your privacy was being compromised on such a scale.

We live in a world where we are recorded by video dozens of times a day, simply while shopping for groceries. At the checkout, our bonus cards record the frequency and breadth of our purchases, and even the times of day of our habits and movements. Our websites download “cookies” to our computer hard drives which record and survey our surfing, in order to guide us toward the products they’d like to us to buy.The credit card companies constantly trade information with the credit reference agencies who have a record of every time you’ve paid your phone bill (late or on time), every application to take out a loan (successful or not), and every move of address and consequent new post code. They use this information to judge you, your character, whether you can be trusted with the money they lent you.

Don’t you feel uncomfortable? Don’t you just feel slightly nervous about it all? The sheer size and scale of all the information being collected about you, your habits, what you own and where you shop and whether you can be trusted anymore. How about if I told you we could end it all with one sweep of a politician’s pen? Would you vote for it? Would you vote to end all the surveillance and data gathering that swims around you every second of the day?

If I told you that by pressing a single button you would be able to wipe all the information kept on you and you’d able to start your life afresh knowing that not one single sinister agency would have one single sinister fact about you, would you press that button? I can make this happen. I have just such a device and I’m putting it in front of you now. All you have to do is press the button. Why don’t you do it? The button is in front of you. Press it and let’s see how it can feel to be free.

OK. So you’ve pressed it. It’s going to take some time, but all the information that’s ever been kept on you will be deleted. I’ll give you a running commentary while this happens, shall I? It’s started.

Right now, your supermarket bonus card is being deleted. They don’t know who you are anymore. You are anonymous to them. Good, ain’t it? All the pictures on the CCTV cameras are being wiped, not that you were doing anything wrong, but it’s nice to know your human rights are being respected.

Now, unfortunately your credit cards’ are being wiped. I know you’d like to keep just one of them but it’s an all or nothing deal and you agreed. The good thing is you can forget about what you owe.

Now the parking permit on your car windscreen is disappearing, along with your car tax. Now your pass to get into work. I suppose you could ask for another pass but they might call the police on you, since your entire work record is currently being deleted. Don’t blame me. It was your choice. You said you wanted to be free.

I know you’d like to get a job elsewhere but there may be a problem with that. There are no references, and your National Insurance number is being deleted as we speak. Your pension contributions are going with it. Your bank accounts are closed and your deposits are being wiped out. You ATM card will be rejected.

You can’t even sign on the dole now. Your tax code has now been wiped; you have never paid tax in this country. You wouldn’t be able to get another job anyway as your professional qualifications are being wiped out as we speak. That includes your Degree and your GCSEs. You’re not even on the school photo. You never won that swimming medal, you never passed your driving test which is just as well as you have no insurance and the DVLA are wiping your car off their records. The passport office don’t know who you are. You’ve never existed. Forget about the mortgage, your house is someone else’s. Your websites don’t know your name or password and there is no email address.

That’s it. It’s finished. You said you wanted a clean sheet. Everything wiped out. You wanted the whole sinister business to end. Well it has. And it’s left you as a nothing, without a family, a job, a home, a country, a place, or even a name.

Oh, and one more thing needs to be deleted. That time three years ago when you got done for drink driving? Right now the police are deleting your photo. Now they’re deleting your prints. And now, last but not least, they’re deleting your DNA. From now on, as far as the world is concerned, you don’t even exist as a human being.

How’s it feel? Do you regret it now? Do you wish you’d never pressed the button? Do you wish you could have your life back?
OK. So now I’m gonna give you a chance. I have another button. This one reverses the deletion and takes everything back to how it was a few moments ago. Do you want to press the button? It’s in front of you. If you want to, press it now.

So you’ve pressed it. Good. It’s all reversing now. It’s done. Everything’s back to normal again. You exist, as you always have done. There’s nothing to worry about anymore. Happy?

Now let’s talk rationally about your sudden change of opinion regarding the data society. There is nothing evil about the fact that we live in a society which is governed by data; our world has never been safer, more exciting, or more fulfilling. If we removed information from our society we’d go back to the 1970s; a world without computers, or cash-points, or DVDs. No one wants to go back, so if we want to go forward, we have to ask “Why do we have such a problem with data?”

It is because our fears are misplaced. We fear “information”, when we ought to fear “misuse of information”, and that is a crucial difference. We’ve grown up with the nightmarish concept of the Big Brother society, but it wasn’t the crude surveillance techniques in 1984 that made that novel so chilling, it was the treatment of the citizens by the evil regime.

Now that you know that your mobile phone speaks to Vodafone/Orange every few minutes in order that the network knows where you are, does this make you want to no longer have a mobile phone? It’s doesn’t because there is a tangible benefit to this apparent infringement of your liberty. You get phone calls wherever you are and you like that.

If people are given a choice to accept data being gathered if that data gathering gives them a tangible benefit, then they tend to accept the data gathering overwhelmingly. The example that proves this point is the Tesco’s Bonus Card. Why refuse a 1% discount on all shopping, in return for the company gathering and analysing information on the card holder’s purchases? The benefit of the club card is a tiny 1% but it is tangible enough to overcome the fears of data misuse.

We do need to discuss the role of data in society, but first we need to put things into perspective. If the retention of data by phone networks and Internet service providers is of use to our crime fighting services, then this is a good reason to retain the data. If it is so expensive as to be bad value, then we should not. But to refuse to retain data out of respect to our human rights, fails to respect our human right not to be a victim of crime. We have a human right not to be murdered, not to be raped, not to be a victim of terrorism. These are the things that matter, not the irrational fear of data.

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