Suppliers of surveillance IT face public backlash

Ian Pearson, a former BT “futurologist” and a chartered fellow of the British Computer Society, has warned that a popular backlash against the government’s preoccupation with surveillance technologies could lead to demonstrations and even attacks on computer centres.

Pearson’s warning came in a keynote talk – ” a trip to the future” – to hundreds of delegates at the City IT and The IT Security Forum on board the Aurora cruise ship recently.

He advised delegates from IT suppliers that they could become a target for the population’s anger if they known to provide surveillance technologies to the government.  These were some of the points in his talk:

– A public backlash against surveillance technologies could happen within five years

– The surveillance state – what Pearson called the “Stepford Society” – could become an electoral issue, with the Party which credibly promises a reduction winning a general election.

– Law-abiding people are being “put in a digital prison by overt surveillance by the government” while criminals remain free.

He gave examples of surveillance technologies:

– Road tolls via satellite-tracking 
– Speed cameras
DNA database
– Identity Cards
– 25% of the world’s CCTVs
Face recognition systems
– Tax enforcement via integrated databases
– Speed limits built in car management system
Government knows everywhere you go
– Extensive and permanent police records
– One stop shop for all government data
– Monitoring of e-cash
– Number-plate recognition
– Abuse of millimetre wave cameras (which measure waves naturally emitted by the human body, exposing “cold” objects under clothing)
– Extensive monitoring of all electronic activity

This is what Pearson said:

“I think surveillance technology is great . If you can pick up all the criminals and terrorists then fine. That is not actually what governments are using it for. It’s too difficult because terrorists don’t fill in the right forms. Neither do criminals. They put in false IDs. They don’t talk to the police very nicely. You and I do. We have all registered our cars with the DVLA so when you drive at 75mph though one of these new speed traps with all the cameras linked together you will get a £60 fine and 3 points on your licence.

“The criminal who stole your car and is driving at 120 won’t get a fine because it’s your car, and he nicked it, and he can drive at whatever speed he likes. And if it’s his own car he will have number-plates using LCD technology, and virtual paper – digital ink technology – so his number-plates will change every time he goes through a speed check  He doesn’t get a fine, because he doesn’t care about the law.

“…You cannot lock in the law-abiding majority of the population forever. Eventually you will get miffed about the fact that you are inside a digital prison while the criminals are roaming around free. That is not sustainable…

“By 2012 – 2013 tops – you will a technology backlash in the major population. Why is it relevant to you? Because if your firm is providing services to government authorities, which help the government to crack down on law-abiding people, you are in the firing line. Be very careful you are on the right side of the line when the [*] hits the fan. You need to be very careful indeed.

“Be careful how you market new products…. Make sure people don’t understand the link between you and the government which is trying to crack down on their everyday lives. That will make you on the wrong side of the firing line.”

During a Q&A after his talk, Pearson was asked by a delegate whether he thought the government would want access to bank records now that it has a stake in some banks. 

He replied:

“There is a limit how far they can go down that road.” He said that the rejection of overt surveillance by the population will eventually reach a critical point, and could “bubble over into some sort of revolution, and demonstrations in the streets, and smashing of government computer centres”.

He added:

“The government will want to use all these new technologies to force compliance – of course they do – but some people will realise that some people are getting away with this.

“… We all read periodically that someone in government has left a memory stick or a PC on a train. That can happen only so many times before I get really annoyed that it is my records that have gone missing and I may suffer the consequences an identity theft… You cannot keep increasing surveillance ad infinitum without the population objecting. Eventually it will become an electoral issue where a Party that says it will reduce surveillance will get elected.”

In an interview later with me, Pearson said the reaction against surveillance would come from people who are ordinarily settled.

“We are talking initially civil disobedience but if the government doesn’t listen we could find mass boycotts of company products, trying to force companies to change their ways but eventually if people really get miffed, and if government does not do anything about it, and carries on going, you could end up with people rioting outside company headquarters.

“It could go as far as animal-rights type stuff – people committing acts of violence. But there are several stages to go through before things got to that point. 

“The silent majority stays silent for a very long time generally before but they do anything. But then you could have marches and riots and some more focused violence if nobody does anything about it.”

He said that almost weekly there is a disclosure or a government announcement, which, cumulatively, will cause a backlash. The latest disclosure, he said, was that the government was considering stopping motorists from receiving their legal costs if they prove a speeding ticket was issued incorrectly.

“If it would cost me a large amount I probably would not challenge [a speeding ticket]. You’re taking away a large amount of justice. It’s not just that the government is putting in mass surveillance, there’s nothing you can do about it if it goes wrong.

“The government loses a memory stick with personal records on it and there’s ID theft as a result, there’s nothing you can do because the government won’t let you complain. I don’t really want to live in that sort of a country. Most people I think would agree.

“The Information Commissioner pointed that we are slip-sliding into [George Orwell’s] 1984. And that was years ago. Since then we have seen enthusiasm by home secretaries for extreme surveillance.

“…If you link together all the speed cameras, and you demand all the records from all the internet service providers, plus you want all mobile phone information, the government will know every single thing that you do: where you went, who you were talking to, what you said. The government will be with you through your day. You won’t have any privacy whatsoever. 

“I don’t think police state is the right expression. Certainly 1984… If there’s a mobile phone present the government can switch it on to record conversations without the person knowing.

“The system allows “no-ring-dial-up” in which your phone answers a call you don’t know you’ve received and uses the microphone to record your conversation. The same can happen with the fixed-line phone. It is a dangerous technology. I don’t think people will put up with this ad infinitum. “

I asked what he thought would be the final straw, before any overt public reaction.

“Maybe it’s when the ID Cards have finally come out, and they have gone from being £20, to £30, to £50, to £60 and £100,  and by the time they cost a few hundred pounds and not be secure, and increase the amount of fraud rather than decrease it,  and reduce security rather than enhance it, maybe that will be the final straw – when people realise the government is losing information left right and centre while the criminals are using advances in technology to make it easier for them to commit fraud – maybe when you’re paying the government to impose a nuisance on you.”

He added:

“It could be the demand you have to queue for hours to have your fingerprints taken at a very slow Post Office or similar, where the law-abiding citizens give their fingerprints and the criminals don’t. Maybe that will be the final straw.

“Gradually most of us are becoming quite resentful and we don’t have the respect for the police we used to. Joe Blogs recognises as he drives down the motorway that there are dangerous drivers and some people who are clearly drunk, and are using their  mobile phones, and the police don’t do anything. But if you get caught doing two or three miles an hour over the speed limit you will be clobbered. People don’t like that.

“They would much rather the police were sensible rather than make an automated decision regardless of the circumstances…They [the police] allow criminals to get away with crimes because it’s too hard to catch them – you have your car stolen and they give you a crime number so you can claim on insurance.  The impression you get is that when they do catch people, they are let off with a caution. You don’t get let off with a caution for your first speeding offence.

“The backlash will come when there is an intersection of two curves: one is the amount of resentment that is building every year and the other curve is the increasing familiarity with the web and its processes which will allow people to coordinate action against it. When those two curves intersect you will get the backlash.”



Pearson has a point when he says that the government will use surveillance technologies to crack down on the generally law-abiding citizen. In London I’m told that criminals are avoiding number-plate recognition systems by riding around on bicycles.


IT suppliers at risk as public reject surveillance state – Computer Weekly, Nov 2008

Ian Pearson on BT’s concern about the Stepford Society – 2006

Ian Pearson  – BBC, Q&A

Ian Pearson – Biography 

State’s misuse of IT could hit trust in police – former head of PITO  

Information Commissioner – we could be sleepwalking into surveillance society – BBC online

The future could be female says Ian Pearson

2050 – and immortality is within our grasp says Ian Pearson – The Observer, 2005

Social networking bubbling to the top – IT BusinessEdge

Ian Pearson interview – ITWales

Millimetre wave cameras