New technologies and laws are enabling greater communication monitoring. Industry experts argue whether this marks the arrival of Big Brother
Big Brother isn't just watching you, he's listening too. The period after the 11 September terrorist attacks saw a massive increase in the development of technologies that can analyse and report on communications between individuals and organisations. Much of the resulting new technology is just starting to make its way into the public domain and we should all be concerned about its use.
A good example of this type of technology comes from supplier Autonomy, which has developed systems to record voice in real time, create reports on the topic being discussed and even search for specific words. Call centre operatives in organisations using this product may well be unaware that their every word is being monitored by a computer.
Other technologies support interrogation of numeric data to establish whether fraud is being committed. Most numbers in commerce begin with "1" and anything that deviates from this almost invariably points to fraud of some kind.
Video files can be interrogated to identify images and movement using neural techniques and even mobile phones can betray movement and location. The Inland Revenue may examine mobile phone statements to establish residency - tax exiles making calls from the UK are clearly not in exile. E-mails can be analysed using content management technologies and biometric data will tie us down within the coming decade.
Civil liberties groups find themselves on the defensive, with terrorism being used as an excuse for most incursions into our privacy. The next five years will see an avalanche of technologies being made available to governmental and commercial organisations, and there seems to be little education on how they can or cannot be used.
Employees appear to be the least informed and tend to be ignorant that e-mails and telephone conversations are being investigated - possibly in real time.
The pressure to monitor employee behaviour has increased by orders of magnitude over the past few years as new legislation such as Basel 2 and Sarbanes-Oxley forces firms to scrutinise a wider range of activities.
The IT industry is responding by providing greater analytical capability through content management and business intelligence and the success of suppliers in these areas would indicate that their offerings are being adopted with enthusiasm.
Although suppliers emphasise the benefits of these technologies and argue that if you have nothing to hide, there is nothing to fear, it does not require too much imagination to envisage how they might be misused.
One example is industrial espionage, where a company can listen to and analyse conversations between employees from another firm. Criminal organisations might find ways to tap into internet traffic and look for behaviours that might be exploited.
Furthermore, the proposed biometric national ID cards present a whole new set of problems and opportunities for data and content management.
The retina scan at Schipol airport, which subscribing passengers can use instead of queuing at passport desks, works, but only sometimes. Living organisms are dynamic and long strings of binary data are not. Expect copious exception handling when biometric systems materialise (our jet-setting friends at Schipol often end up in the passport queues) and much more inconvenience.
Repeated identification errors will mean a re-scan, which is not as simple as phoning and giving a new address or similar details. The systems needed to handle biometric data will be far more complex than existing systems and it is worth remembering that the government does not have a good track record where information systems are concerned.
For every "good" use of the technology there will be a hundred bad uses - human nature guarantees this. How do we feel about the possibility that our every conversation, financial transaction, TV viewing habit, car journey and holiday are analysed by a system in a commercial or governmental organisation to check that we are "OK", or to find more ways of selling us things we do not want?
Education is the key, but where are the educators? We are all being left in the dark on how our lives will be affected and exactly how we are being watched and heard.
What can monitoring technology do?
Reports can be generated on recorded telephone calls in call centres
Video data can be analysed to identify images
Mobile phone use can be monitored to locate employees in the field
E-mail data can be checked using content management technology
The Inland Revenue could check mobile phone records to determine residency
Criminal organisations could tap internet traffic, looking for ways to crack computer systems.
Martin Butler is president of analyst firm Butler Group