Help! They know all about me

Big Brother Britain

What with all the CCTV cameras, I already knew I was being watched in the street.

But I had no idea till now that I was under surveillance at home. The faceless, nefarious collectors of data are watching -how I use the phone and who I’m calling. They know what websites I visit when I’m online. They are preparing to check out my medical records. By watching my shopping, they already know what I eat. They even know what I wear in bed.

The technology permitting them to do this has not been put into place by an evil power, I am told by Richard Thomas, the information commissioner, which is some comfort, but he did warn last week that we are “waking up to a surveillance society” and that Britons are the most spied-on people in the western world.

Thomas, 58, a lawyer who formerly worked for the Citizens Advice Bureau, the National Consumer Council and the Office of Fair Trading, has just published a hefty report on how data is gathered on everyone. “We have been quite surprised, frankly,” Thomas says when I meet him. “When you pull it all together and see the impact on daily lives of us all … I have been disturbed by what I have read. And I think a lot of people will say, gosh.”

We are monitored as citizens and as consumers. Our movements are tracked and our private thoughts logged. If someone with a bit of money has a grudge against you, there’s little to stop him hiring a private detective to get hold of electronic records covering every aspect of your life.

The argument that if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear is described by the report’s authors as “fallacious and dangerous”. If you know you are being watched you change your behaviour. Do you close the door when you go to the loo? Do you resist the urge to pick your nose while others are present? If so, you are a normal human being. You are also, like it or not, a privacy advocate.

And these are just the things that everyone agrees on. (Well, nearly everyone. I can think of exceptions.)

Conspiracy theorists say that watching people is a form of social control. They are not entirely wrong and it seems that we are increasingly unable to refuse our consent. At work, some employers track keystrokes to monitor staff use of computers, or use GPS to monitor company vehicles.

Even those that do not do this have policies entitling them to access electronic records relating to phone and computer use. That’s fine, until the employee falls out with the company -which may then legally trawl through the records for anything even mildly incriminatory. Few of us would come out of that looking good.

We do not choose to be monitored by the 4.2m CCTV cameras -more than in any other country. The Home Office has admitted that “the CCTV schemes that have been assessed had little effect on crime levels”. But more cameras are coming: in future they will be mounted on unmanned drones flying overhead.

We don’t ask to have our vehicle movements logged by automatic plate recognition, or information from our use of Oyster cards on London transport passed to the police -a classic instance of “function creep”, in which data collected for one purpose is used for another, usually without consent.

People who have been arrested do not choose, and are often coerced, into providing fingerprint and DNA samples that will be permanently logged on the national database even if they are released without charge. When Grant Shapps, a Tory MP, challenged this on behalf of a constituent whose son had been mistakenly identified, the police told him they were not authorised to remove the boy’s data.

Sir Alec Jeffreys, a pioneer of DNA profiling, says hundreds of thousands of innocent people are populating that database. There is increasing evidence that the data is being used to carry out controversial genetic research without consent.

Another group put under surveillance before they are convicted are the thousands of adults and juveniles, some as young as 12, tagged to await trial at home rather than be put in custody. Some of them, let’s not forget, may be innocent. Jean Lambert, the Green MEP, points out that anti-nuclear protesters arrested at Faslane naval base but never charged were subsequently refused entry to Genoa during the meeting of the G8: “The information about their arrest should not have been kept, let alone circulated abroad. What redress can they have now the information has been passed around?”

If part of you suspects that these people deserve to be watched, regardless of their innocence, remember that in May the Criminal Records Bureau admitted that it had wrongly labelled 2,700 innocent people as pornographers, thieves and violent criminals.

If it’s bad enough being watched, it’s worse still if you don’t know it’s happening. Even at home a record is kept of every website we visit. In August, AOL accidentally released search inquiries from 20m users. Supposedly shorn of identifiers, it took only moments to start connecting search records with names.

One who was identified was a man in Florida who typed his troubles into the search window of his computer: “My wife doesnt love animore”. He searched for “Stop your divorce” before turning to self-examination with “alchool withdrawl sintoms” (at 10 in the morning) and “disfunctional erection”. Some days later he typed: “My cheating wife” and then, five times, “I want to kill myself” and then “I want to make my wife suffer” followed quickly by “Kill my wifes mistress”. Two days after that, with an irony I wouldn’t dare to invent, he was looking for audio surveillance and bugging equipment.

You don’t need to be an alcoholic with a broken marriage to worry about your emotional problems becoming publicly available. We ask Google things that we would hesitate to ask anyone and Google remembers it all. Roger Clarke, an Australian specialist who lectures worldwide on “dataveillance”, is particularly critical of Google. The Google Desktop service, he says, is promoted as a device to search your own hard drive with no suggestion that Google can access the data: “But the terms and conditions, as recently as March, contained no link to a privacy policy, which could be interpreted as enabling Google to use any personal data gathered from your hard drive as it sees fit, now or in the future.”

Telephones, too, are less private than most people realise. In 2002, law enforcement groups made more than 400,000 requests for data from mobile network operators. The American military intelligence base at Menwith Hill in Yorkshire listens in to calls and uses complex software to pick out particular words and phrases.

Some of the things that we consider most deeply private are contained in our medical records: a history of depression, a sexually transmitted disease, a long-ago abortion, recovery from drug addiction or a suicide attempt. The National Health Service has embarked on a £ 12 billion IT project that will upload millions of patients’ medical records onto a database, freely accessed by 250,000 NHS staff and, to a lesser degree, by private health companies, council workers, commercial researchers and ambulance staff.

It might as well be public. Thomas has already encountered cases of private investigators, aided by insiders, raiding government and company databases such as the police national computer and the DVLA’s vehicle computer, as well as those at the Department for Work and Pensions. Doctors fear that when the openness of the database is understood, patients may stop telling GPs their secrets. The health department is unbothered: “The citizen has no right to stipulate what will and will not be recorded … nor where those records will be held.”

Similarly overreaching is the trial run of the 2011 census, unveiled last week, which will require details about health problems, how often couples spend the night together and whether they have a second home, and personal income. Experts say that the additional intrusion may lead to people making false returns.

So much for the public sector. As consumers we are closely watched, too. In some parts of the country, the company behind Nectar cards keeps information on 90% of the local population. Nationwide, more than half of us carry one of its cards. One of my close relatives regards me as frankly insane not to have one. Why deprive myself of all those discounts? It’s like walking past a pile of free money and not taking any.

I don’t want somebody to “own” all that information about me. The information commissioner’s report confirms my misgivings. Even if the company behind the Nectar card conducts itself impeccably today, Thomas warns, it may not always do so. He recently criticised commercial organisations such as HSBC, NatWest and Royal Bank of Scotland for dumping details of customers’ accounts on the streets.

They face unlimited fines.

Katherine Albrecht is the founder of Caspian, an American organisation set up to oppose invasions of privacy by supermarkets. She is not anti-business: on the contrary, she holds a business degree. But “my passion happens to be preserving personal freedom, staving off totalitarianism, and resisting Orwellian intrusion”, she said.

Spychips, a new book which Albrecht co-wrote with Liz McIntyre, describes controversial uses of radio frequency identification (RFID) which uses tiny microchips to track everyday objects, animals and even people using radio waves.

In Cambridge, Tesco tested RFID by inserting chips into certain goods deemed “vulnerable” to shoplifting. The chips instructed CCTV cameras to monitor the person who had picked up the goods. It is unclear whether the tags remain active after leaving the store. Groups such as Liberty are worried that individuals could be profiled and tracked without their consent by means of a tag embedded in a shoe. This could associate them with, for example, attendance at events such as political rallies.

A supermarket might not care about our attendance at rallies but others might; and how would the information be protected? “Boundaries between state and private sector interests are blurring,” the information commissioner’s report warns, “as more tasks of government are carried out through a sometimes complex combination of public, private, voluntary sector and market mechanisms.”

On the BBC’s Question Time last week, Charles Clarke, the former home secretary, said glibly that people who wished to reduce the amount of information gathered about them could do so by choosing not to keep a bank account and never visiting the doctor.

Giving up the bank account and using only cash may not provide a long-term escape: Hitachi has been working with the European Central Bank on the idea of putting RFID chips into Euro banknotes.

A surveillance society does not only affect privacy, Thomas warns. It is also about mutual trust. After the London bombings, television stations and police encouraged us to film suspicious activities on our mobile phones. “All of today’s surveillance processes bespeak a world where we know we’re not really trusted,” says the report. “Social relationships depend on trust and permitting ourselves to undermine it in this way seems like slow social suicide.”

The spy in the supermarket

Every time you use your supermarket loyalty card you’re handing over personal information. Loyalty Management UK, the company that operates the Nectar card, has over 50% of the UK population holding one of their cards.

The spy in the mobile

Your mobile stores information about you as well as phone numbers. In 2002, law enforcement groups made more than 400,000 requests for data from mobile network operators.

The spy in your office

Your boss may have installed a keystroke monitor on your workstation, tracking every word you type. All UK internet service providers must monitor the websites we visit and pass the information to MI5 under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill.

The spy on the street

There is now one CCTV camera for every 14 people in the UK. On an average day you could be caught on camera more than 300 times – that’s once every 4.8 minutes.

The spy on the road

There are 6,000 speed cameras and 8,000 automatic plate recognition devices in the UK. London’s Metropolitan police have introduced “eye in the sky” cameras attached to helicopters that can read numberplates on the ground.