Thought for the day: The thin red line

As the saying goes, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you - and technology is increasingly making...

Simon Moores  

As the saying goes, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you - and technology is increasingly making it easier for big brother find out what you are up to


Following on the heels of a  warning from Richard Thomas, the UK's Information Commissioner, that Britain is at risk of “sleepwalking into a surveillance society”, TV reports last week illustrated a "black box" that can be fitted in your car which may show the way for the future evaluation of motor insurance risk.

We are already surrounded by spyware, which is increasingly attached to anything capable of passing an electric current. It is rife on the internet and in personal computers, a breakthrough in lens technology will soon make digital cameras as pervasive as cheap calculators, and your mobile phone is constantly reporting your position.

Only last summer a service provider demonstrated to me how good location-based technology is and how useful it can be. In a boardroom with a large display screen on the wall, he told me he would show me where his girlfriend was at that moment.

He typed in her mobile telephone number into the software and the screen dutifully displayed a map of London, zooming in on a spot in the Brompton Road, where a dot flashed.

“It is only good for fifty metres accuracy,” he told me, “but that’s enough for what we need.” Not just the police, then, or the emergency services but anyone with access to the software can find out where you’re shopping.

Norwich Union is trialling a scheme among 5,000 policy holders which will have your car do the reporting. Based on where you happen to drive and how fast, it will calculate your insurance exposure and calculate your premiums accordingly.

“Good news for customers” in the shape of cheaper policies, we are told - but I rather think that there is a profit motive for the insurers, rather like the congestion charge and speed cameras and every other device which leverages advances in technology to squeeze more money from the unhappy consumer.

Like the Information Commissioner I am equally concerned about how all the data that is routinely captured, detailing our habits, interests and movements, is managed and shared in this proud new surveillance society.

We both share the fear that the Home Office’s proposed ID card scheme will involve the establishment of a national register of citizens’ personal details that will be accessible to government departments, with minimal attention to privacy concerns.

There is, for example confusion about the governance of publicly held information, with vetting and Draconian penalties for abuse by directly employed personnel of companies or agencies. But there is often no vetting or penalties for abuse by the staff of the contractors and subcontractors who run call centres and routinely enter or access sensitive data for many central and local government departments and agencies.

As EURIM’s Philip Virgo said, the sorry state of affairs revealed by the Bichard enquiry is repeated across much of central and local government. It underlies public concern about ID cards, particularly the reluctance to believe that they will be anything other than another spectacular waste of public money. It is also the prime obstacle to delivery of the efficiency agenda supported by both government and the opposition.

I would rather not have my activities wirelessly reported back to my insurer or an office in Whitehall. Where Norwich Union is concerned, as long as its location-based insurance policies are voluntary it is a question of personal choice - but such voluntary schemes soon become mandatory once a profit motive appears - and before you know it we’ll be submitting to DNA tests for our health insurance too.

I don’t know anyone, other than David Blunkett, who does not acknowledge the objections, who trusts business or government to properly manage and safeguard the increasing volumes of personal data that are being routinely harvested about all of us.

In fact, I would argue that we are not sleepwalking into an Orwellian surveillance society; we are rushing headlong into a technology-spun straightjacket with no true regard for the consequences.

Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of leading industry analyst Dr Simon Moores of Zentelligence.

Acting globally, Zentelligence (Research) advises governments, suppliers, business and the media on the evolution, application and delivery of leading-edge technologies, and specialises in the areas of e-government and information security .

For further information on Zentelligence and its research, presentation and analyst services, visit

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