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Database Nation

by Chapman 1

As of Monday 24th November 2008 New Zealanders residing in the United Kingdom on student or marriage visas will be required to hold biometric ID cards, issued by the UK government, containing 49 pieces of their personal information. The following is a backgrounder on how the UK has become a surveillance state and the extreme measures already in place.

London – circa 1984?

There’s an often repeated expression in the English media that claims the UK has ‘slept-walked into a surveillance society’. As though, having turned in one night with a cup of Bovril and Match of the Day playing on the TV, they’ve awoken to a world of CCTV cameras, fingerprinting and identity checks. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. England is by long measures the world’s most watched country, but to suggest the current situation (which sees children fingerprinted when they take out school library books) is a surprise, is absurd. Great Britain has sprinted into a science-fiction dystopia with all the planning and tenacity of its over-achieving Olympic team.

As early as 1995, the British Home Office decided snooping should become a priority, dedicating 78% of all crime prevention funding to the installation of surveillance cameras in public places. By 2002, a working paper estimated that between government and private projects, approximately 4.2 million of them had been installed in Britain (that’s one for every 14 citizens), with enough in London for an average denzien to make 300 CCTV appearances, across 30 networks per day. Remarkably, in a land obsessed with data collection, the exact number of surveillance cameras is unknown as no official records are kept - it appears that while many may be doing the watching, no data is recorded as to who they might be.

The consequences for privacy are far reaching. Let’s consider a hypothetical situation: a boss takes his secretary to lunch, nothing untoward occurs, but council cameras capture the pair of them dining together, footage is passed on to a third party company who then offer it for sale to his wfie under the auspices of ‘your husband is seeing a mystery woman’. It’s a scenario that reeks of Orwellian paranoia and one that requires behind the scenes coertion between a number of official bodies – but if it seems implausible, take note of Emma Faulkner who, feeling too tired to drive, pulled off the motorway to sleep, only to receive a parking ticket a few days later. Her number plate had been picked up on camera, her car details purchased by a private company from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Association (the government's national body - which incidentally has sold 5.3 million driver records since 2002), and then issued her with a fine.

If you thought that was petty though, you haven’t heard the half of it. Through a rather liberal interpretation of anti-terrorism laws, over 50% of British councils now spy on householders who put their rubbish out on the wrong day, using cameras in discarded baked bean tins and recruiting unpaid ‘environment volunteers' (PDF link). You’d hate to be new to the neighbourhood, wouldn’t you? But the hardline on keeping Britain green doesn’t end there, with some councils inserting RFID (radio transmitter) chips in wheelie bins to monitor the contents being thrown away (pic here). It’s reminiscent of the East German Stasi.

While it’s easy to evoke Orwell’s masterpiece as a parallel (particularly in light of the irony that four cameras now directly watch his former London apartment), this only paints half the picture. Where Winston Smith was battling the forces of a bureaucracy based on conventional ‘50s technology, Orwell did not predict the rise of computers or the wholesale digitalisation of administration. There are as many likenesses to Philip K. Dick’s nightmarish Minority Report as there are to Big Brother’s all seeing eye in 1984. Surveillance cameras may be part and parcel of everyday life, but it’s the collection and retention of personal data that truly threatens civil liberties. And it’s nigh on impossible to avoid – as I found out recently.

I’m a big fan of cycling. In London it’s my primary form of travel and one I’ve used regularly enough to become a little cocky – a fact I found to my detriment when I dropped my cell phone whilst trying to ride and talk recently. Thinking (as I would in NZ) that it was no big deal to find a replacement, I headed to Oxford Street in search of the cheapest phone I could find. Spotting a Samsung for £10* (I failed to see the asterisk), I took it to the counter. So far, so good.

The catch however, was that in order to buy the phone, I had to also buy a new sim-card with pre-paid credit (a further £10), regardless of the fact I had a working (albeit phoneless) sim in my pocket. In order to purchase the new sim I had to go through a registration process, detailing my address, email, date of birth, and alternative phone number (I should count myself lucky, soon you will require a passport, at the end of which I handed the shop assistant a £20 note. Rather than thanking me and bidding me adieu, she made a statement so staggering I could hardly believe my ears, “Oh, no”, she said matter of factly, “it’s £20 if you’re paying by bank card. If you wish to pay by cash, it’s £30”.

British customer service is bad at the best of times, but to be penalised for paying cash takes the cake. I handed her my bank card, watched as she used the eft-pos machine to confirm that the details I’d given her matched those that HSBC had for me, then left as she uttered, “Good-bye Mr Chapman” – a familiarity that only served to highlight the real transaction that had actually taken place.

(On the subject of telecommunications (or in case you think me a little paranoid), have a squizz at the proposed changes to the Communications Data Bill now tabled in parliament, proposing to give the British government the legal right to monitor and record every conversation its citizens have, email they send or web address they visit).

The grand prize of being penalised for NOT giving out personal information however, perhaps belongs to London’s ubiquitous Oyster Card. Issued by Transport for London, these convenient swipe-and-go cards are what the public transport system relies on - commuters put pre-pay credit on the card or purchase weekly or monthly passes (no longer available on paper tickets) at rates often less than half what they would be paying with cash. Register the card (submitting your address and contact details) and receive even further discounts. In a city where millions of people spend hundreds, if not thousands of pounds each per year on public transport, it’s a system that at first glance seems convenient and efficient. Delve a little deeper and things get ugly.

Every Oyster Card contains the same RFID chip as the aforementioned wheelie bins. Each time you swipe in and out through London’s underground system, on most of the trains or on any of the buses, your journey is recorded. Should you have signed up for the discounts that come with a registered card, this information will be sent to a central database and logged beside your card’s unique serial number – meaning TfL has a constant, up to the minute record of where you’ve gone, at what time, by what means of transport and when you have returned.

It’s not only public transport that’s monitored though. In 2003 UK police rolled out the national ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Recognition) scheme, now functional across the country. CCTV cameras around the UK have been adapted with ANPR technology enabling them to read the number plates of passing cars travelling at up to 100mph (police helicopters have the ability to read number plates from 2000 feet). These are then compared against the databases of the police, the DVLA (who have no compunction about selling personal data, remember), a National Insurance database and a host of local databases to check for MoT information, uninsured vehicles, outstanding warrants or fines. By early 2009 the scheme will record the movements of 50 million vehicles per day, with motorists’ journey details being kept (inexplicably) on record for five years.

It seems whether you walk (surveillance cameras), drive (ANPR cameras), fly (air carriers are now required to provide the Home Office with passenger reservation and payment details) or take public transport (Oyster Cards), commuters’ journeys can be tracked at any time.

Whew. That’s a fair bit of information – but where does it end? Not there. What good is all this collated data without a central point of reference for it? That’s where the National Identity Register comes in.

Yep, currently underway in the UK is history’s grandest attempt at data collection yet devised. The National Identity Register will retain 49 pieces of information about every individual in the UK, all to be kept on one large central database and tied with a national ID card scheme to be rolled out in 2009. To save you reading the whole list, it includes: fingerprints, iris scans, photographs, all known aliases, addresses (both past and present), date of birth, signature and the details of any occasion you’ve asked to access the information recorded about you. It’s not compulsory for UK citizens yet, but non-EU foreign nationals on student or spouse visas (like New Zealanders) will begin to have them issued as of Monday.

And the security of this information? Well, despite Gordon Brown stating that people’s confidential details could not always be guaranteed to be secure Home Secretary Jacqui Smith suggested that the biometric enrolment for the ID cards could be done at the Post Office. (These are the same numpties who once asked me if New Zealand was in the EU).

But just in case that isn’t scary enough, how about the National DNA Database? Now containing the genetic profiles of over 5 million people (including a seven year old boy) it has repeatedly been classed a priority by the current Labour government. In some areas police have collated DNA samples for 10% of the local population, including a number of people who haven’t committed a crime (police take samples from anyone in custody or suspected of committing an offence – even if they are released without charge). It’s estimated that nearly 20% of those on the database are innocent children. Oh, and much like information held by the DVLA, your DNA is also available for commercial use.

Though the UK may be a few years ahead of the rest of the world, this ominous scenario is not restricted to it. The early stages of similar measures are visible in Europe, the US (there’s hardly a need to document the loss of civil liberties in the wake of the Bush administration) and even Australia. So if you’re contemplating relocating to London - considered by many a city of opportunity and financial rewards - it may be worth totalling the true costs of such a move.

By Tom Chapman

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