Would we really welcome the end of the data state?

by Dan McCurry

Ever wondered how mobile phone companies know where you are, in order to route the phone calls through to you? The phone in your pocket is keeping a constant “chatter” with the network informing them of your location. That’s how the police can track you down if you ever become a fugitive. They can tell where you are within a 10ft radius. And if you run, every 30 seconds your phone will inform them, and inform them, and inform them. You were never told this when you bought your phone. No one ever told you your privacy was being compromised on such a scale.

We live in a world where we are recorded by video dozens of times a day, simply while shopping for groceries. At the checkout, our bonus cards record the frequency and breadth of our purchases, and even the times of day of our habits and movements.

Our websites download “cookies” to our computer hard drives which record and survey our surfing, in order to guide us toward the products they’d like to us to buy.

The credit card companies constantly trade information with the credit reference agencies who have a record of every time you’ve paid your phone bill (late or on time), every application to take out a loan (successful or not), and every move of address and consequent new post code. They use this information to judge you, your character, whether you can be trusted with the money they lent you.

Don’t you feel uncomfortable? Don’t you just feel slightly nervous about it all? The sheer size and scale of all the information being collected about you, your habits, what you own and where you shop and whether you can be trusted anymore.

How about if I told you we could end it all with one sweep of a politician’s pen? You could get rid of the lot. Would you vote for it? Would you vote to end all the surveillance and data gathering that swims around you every second of the day?

What if I told you that by pressing a single button you would be able to wipe all the information kept on you and you’d able to start your life afresh knowing that not one single sinister agency would have one single sinister fact about you, would you press that button?

Now, imagine I can make this happen. I have just such a device and I’m putting it in front of you now. All you have to do is press the button. Why don’t you do it? The button is in front of you. Press it and let’s see how it can feel to be free.

OK. So you’ve pressed it. It’s going to take some time, but all the information that’s ever been kept on you will be deleted. I’ll give you a running commentary while this happens, shall I? It’s started.

Right now, your supermarket bonus card is being deleted. They don’t know who you are anymore. You are anonymous to them. Good, isn’t it? All the pictures on the CCTV cameras are being wiped, not that you were doing anything wrong, but it’s nice to know your human rights are being respected.

Now, unfortunately your credit cards’ are being wiped. I know you’d like to keep just one of them but it’s an all or nothing deal and you agreed. The good thing is you can forget about what you owe.

Now the parking permit on your car windscreen is disappearing, along with your car tax. Now your pass to get into work. I suppose you could ask for another pass but they might call the police on you, since your entire work record is currently being deleted. Don’t blame me. It was your choice. You said you wanted to be free.

I know you’d like to get a job elsewhere but there may be a problem with that. There are no references, and your national insurance number is being deleted as we speak. Records of your pension contributions are going with it and your bank accounts are closed. Your ATM card will be rejected.

You can’t even sign on the dole now. Your tax code has now been wiped; you have never paid tax in this country. You wouldn’t be able to get another job anyway as your professional qualifications are being wiped out as we speak. That includes your degree and your GCSEs. You’re not even on the school photo.

You never won that swimming medal, you never passed your driving test which is just as well as you have no insurance and the DVLA are wiping your car off their records. The passport office don’t know who you are. You’ve never existed. Forget about the mortgage, your house is someone else’s. Your websites don’t know your name or password and there is no email address.

That’s it. It’s finished. You said you wanted a clean sheet. Everything wiped out. You wanted the whole sinister business to end. Well it has. And it’s left you as a nothing, without a family, a job, a home, a country, a place, or even a name.

Oh, and one more thing needs to be deleted. That time three years ago when you were nicked for drink driving? Right now the police are deleting your photo. Now they’re deleting your prints. And now, last but not least, they’re deleting your DNA. From now on, as far as the world is concerned, you don’t even exist as a human being.

How does it feel? Do you regret it now? Do you wish you’d never pressed the button? Do you wish you could have your life back?

OK. So now I’m going to give you a chance. I have another button. This one reverses the deletion and takes everything back to how it was a few moments ago. Do you want to press the button? It’s in front of you. If you want to, press it now.

So you’ve pressed it. Good.  It’s all reversing now. It’s done. Everything’s back to normal again. You exist, as you always have done. There’s nothing to worry about anymore. Happy?

Now let’s talk rationally about your sudden change of opinion regarding the data society.

There is nothing evil about the fact that we live in a society which is governed by data; our world has never been safer, more exciting, or more fulfilling. If we removed information from our society we’d go back to the 1970s; a world without computers, or cash-points, or DVDs. No one wants to go back, so if we want to go forward, we have to ask “Why do we have such a problem with data?”

It is because our fears are misplaced. We fear “information”, when we ought to fear “misuse of information”, and that is a crucial difference. We’ve grown up with the nightmarish concept of the Big Brother society, but it wasn’t the crude surveillance techniques in 1984 that made that novel so chilling, it was the treatment of the citizens by the evil regime.

Now that you know that your mobile phone speaks to Vodafone or Orange every few minutes in order that the network knows where you are, does this make you want to no longer have a mobile phone?

It doesn’t because there is a tangible benefit to this apparent infringement of your liberty. You get phone calls wherever you are and you like that.

If people are given a choice to accept data being gathered if that data gathering gives them a tangible benefit, then they tend to accept the data gathering overwhelmingly.

The example that demonstrates this point is Tesco’s Bonus Card. Why refuse a 1% discount on all shopping, in return for the company gathering and analysing information on the card holder’s purchases? The benefit of the club card is a tiny 1% but it is tangible enough to overcome the fears of data misuse.

We do need to discuss the role of data in society, but first we need to put things into perspective. If the retention of data by phone networks and Internet service providers is of use to our crime fighting services, then this is a good reason to retain the data.

If it is so expensive as to be bad value, then we should not. But to refuse to retain data out of respect to our human rights, fails to respect our human right not to be a victim of crime. We have a human right not to be murdered, not to be raped, not to be a victim of terrorism. These are the things that matter, not the irrational fear of data.

Dan McCurry is a Labour activist who blogs here

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9 Responses to “Would we really welcome the end of the data state?”

  1. aragon says:

    Of course society did not function before the invention of the microchip.

    The fact that Tesco inflates it’s prices by 1% to allow it to discount it’s prices, in exchange for your personal data.

    The problem with data is excessive retention, the mobile phone mast needs your present location to route calls.

    Does this location data have to be retained so the police can retrospectively track your movements.

    Tesco can capture anonymous data from the tills’ why does it need to be able to link it to credit card data or club card data?

    Why not ban credit the data exchanged for credit rating agencies.

    All this data is collected for someones benefit, but it is the corporation or government not the individual.

    Society would be better without the collection and storage of individually identifiable data.

    Do I need a credit score ?

    Do I need every word typed into google stored?

    Do I need my ISP or the NSA to store my every interaction on the web ?

    As an individual the answer is No!

    “Is of use to our crime fighting services”

    Not if it is disproportionate and certainly not if it is a myth.



    “But Denmark isn’t alone. In 2011, the Scientific Services of the German Parliament found no significant change in the crime clearance rate (the number of crimes where charges have been laid divided by the total number of crimes reported) among European Union Member States between 2005 and 2010.”

    Data retention does not solve crime, but allows criminalization of the public, like the crime of been late with your bills.

    And yes, all my cookies are deleted when my web session is closed etc.

  2. paul barker says:

    This article confirms my suspicion that many on The Authoritarian Left ( what you would call simply THE Left) just dont get the idea of Freedom, you simply dont understand what Liberals are on about.

  3. McCurry says:

    @Paul Barker
    I really don’t understand what you’re talking about.

  4. McCurry says:

    @Aragon, People who say data retention doesn’t solve crime, also say CCTV doesn’t solve crime and DNA doesn’t solve crime. As if the police just like to waste their own time all day and night.
    My point is that it doesn’t matter.

  5. Hubert Spall says:

    Two words: false dichotomy.

  6. Hubert Spall says:

    Just to expand on that a little: no-one opposes the retention of data by the state per se – e.g. tax records, DVLA, criminal records, etc. Obviously other institutions not directly controlled by the state are at liberty to keep legitimate records – I was pleased to be able to go to the exam boards and get replacement qualification certificates when mine got destroyed. Commercial organisations use data to run their businesses – I am perfectly happy for companies I use regularly to keep a customer record to help run things more smoothly.

    The things people object to are quite specific, and the argument needs to be had on each and every case. Otherwise the logical conclusion to your argument is that the state, other public institutions and commercial companies would have the right to wrap-around 100% surveillance of every aspect of everyone’s life and this information would be available to every employee without control. Which I am sure you don’t really intend to argue?

    So neither of the options you suggest is realistic or desirable.

    Many people find the ubiquity of CCTV a little disconcerting and are concerned that the proper safeguards are in place so that it can’t be misused or get into the wrong hands. With conversation increasingly mediated through phones or internet the close monitoring of traffic is very like having microphones everywhere listening to casual conversations – again, the worry is *who* can listen and *why*.

    The state may be viewed as a benign servant of the public will, or it can be viewed as a collection of individuals and groups with their own agendas and interests which do not always coincide with the common good. It is not unusual for stories to come out showing how even old-fashioned forms of data collection (eavesdropping, going down the bins etc.) have been used for partisan ends by government employees. What forms of big data are safe, and what forms are not? There are important decisions to be made.

    Oversimplifying the argument just gives excuses for those with a vested interest in certain kinds of data to grab power by stealth.

  7. swatantra says:

    Bring it on! If we can keep track on all the anti-social elements in our society all the better,; it’ll make it more comfortable for all of us, including these anti-social elements. When you can iidentify individuals and families with certainty, you can target the resources to get them on the straight and narrow. They’ll thank you in the end. Lets not bury our heads in the sand and pretend these people do not exist.

  8. McCurry says:

    @Hubert Spall
    No one is going to go through your dustbins for new stories. I can understand that argument from Hugh Grant but not you.

  9. Ben says:

    Good article and I agree with much of what you say but isn’t there an issue of choice?

    If I don’t want Tesco to monitor what I buy, I don’t need to get a clubcard or use a credit card in their store. That’s my choice and I use a clubcard because I don’t care if Tesco knows what I’m buying.

    I have a passport because I want to travel abroad, so the trade off that the government can use it to track my movements (if they want to, which I’m sure they don’t) is one I’ll make. When it comes to something like ID cards say, the choice is draconian, ‘have one or leave the country’. That’s a step too far for me.

    Privacy is constantly under negotiation and people have a right to have a say in how much of it they’re willing to give up. That means there has to be an honest debate and what information is being gathered needs to be transparent. Lack of transparency feeds the paranoia.

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