BOOKS GOVERNMENT: Who's watching you?

BIG BROTHER: Britain's Web of Surveillance by Simon Davies, Pan pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
THE spectre haunting the advanced democracies 20 years ago was not communism, pollution, or even (a signal failure of foresight) unemployment. As the Watergate-inspired thrillers of the time showed, it was the power of the buggers and watchers that fuelled the nightmares of all who suspected government and big business and demanded protection from them.

Today, calls for privacy seem quaint and dated. The spirit of the age - exhibited in the willingness to gab to therapists and mulish TV interviewers - is found in confession, if not repentance. Fear of disclosure is dying. Even the suggestion that the British should carry ID cards in peacetime, unthinkable since the 1950s, is supported by that unteachable opportunist Michael Howard because "there are signs that the general public find such a card more acceptable than in the past".

The concept of privacy itself has been diminished. It is now not a civil right, but merely what trashy royals and politicians demand from an equally trashy press. But, as Simon Davies' new study of the rise of DNA testing, data matching, medical micro-engineering and computer and telephone technology makes alarmingly clear, the need to limit surveillance has never been greater. "What is happening is nothing short of an orchestrated effort to bring the public to heel," he writes. "Our movements, transactions and personality are becoming known in a way that Orwell could scarcely have imagined."

Quoted out of context, Davies, an academic and one of the few British campaigners for tough privacy legislation, can sound like a conspiracy theorist. (It is another sign of the times, incidentally, that "conspiracy theorist" has become a blanket insult.) His book, however, is pitched just the right side of paranoia - the only sensible place to be - and draws on dozens of examples of the new surveillance technology in operation.

Those who find talk of Orwellian webs hard to take should start with the easily comprehensible closed-circuit televisions which have been accepted in Britain with remarkably little complaint. There are about 200,000 cameras in place and another 300,000 are planned. Increasingly, forces like the Metropolitan Police are coordinating public and private cameras so you cannot move out of the range of one or another.

So what, comes the reply, as long as cameras cut crime? Who can forget the pictures of Childs A and B leading off James Bulger? But there is no evidence that cameras cut, rather than displace, crime - a finding which raises questions about the motives of the officials who promote them. Take the council and police force of Kings Lynn, whose ranks appear to include more than the usual proportion of voyeurs. The quiet market town of 30,000 contains 120 state-of-the art cameras. Their few triumphs include catching a woman who tried to drive out of a car park without paying the full price for her ticket.

As in the rest of the country, there is nothing you can do if there's a camera which peers through your windows. Mr Howard has ensured that even local authority planning departments cannot stop a company putting up a CCTV system.

If you still think cameras are a price worth paying for an illusory sense of security, consider the Computerised Facial Recognition and NeuroMetric systems being developed in the United States. They can store 20 faces per second in a data base. The bank of digital images can then be used to identify you the next time your face pops up again. What will it be like to live in a country where you know you are being watched in public and perhaps in private by micro-cameras operating day and night? Will you get angry, or will you think the safest course is to smile at everyone you meet and come over all communitarian? To put it another way: do attempts to define your identity change your behaviour and sense of yourself?

Davies' central point is that freedom and confident personal identities depend on limited chaos. No great harm is done as long as your police, medical, social security, motoring, phone, credit card, banking and insurance records are stored separately. But the global drive for computer compatibility raises limitless prospects for data matching - the collection of all data on you in one file. This is what the identity card debate is really about. If everyone has a unique card, the number can be used as an identifier by every corporate and public service you deal with. When road toll and smart cash cards come in your purchases and movements could be monitored in real time.

As with CCTV, the claims made by the companies promoting the new computing systems rarely stand up. The attempt to computerise Britain's police fingerprint records ended in disaster when the system failed (and who knows how many criminals escaped as a result). The world's first computer trawl, "Project Match" in the US, compared payrolls against benefit claims in the confident expectation of finding an army of welfare scroungers. An impressive 33,000 were unmasked. But by the time all the mistakes in the data were uncovered only 55 people ended up facing prosecution. Not one received a prison sentence.

But the humiliation caused to the tens of thousands of honest people who found they were under investigation is unquantifiable. Data matching is the equivalent of giving the police the power to enter every home in the country without warrants and search through private papers. Because it is invisible, there is no outcry.

And then there are the spanking new technologies which can push you firmly towards the paranoid camp. DNA sampling raises the prospect of the insurance industry and employers routinely demanding information on whether you are likely to suffer from hereditary diseases. Micro surgery and implants fuse mind and machine, raising the prospect of memory control further down the line.

None of these technical advances would be frightening, if this Government had anything other than contempt for its citizens' privacy. But the Department of Health is computerising the records of every patient in the country, and blithely ignores the British Medical Association's warnings that the leaky system is wide open to pro-life hackers, say, looking for the names of abortion patients and doctors. The intelligence services are stopping the encryption of computer data, which would protect confidentiality, because it would make it harder for them to spy on us. The one body charged with monitoring abuse is the Data Protection Agency. But it has few powers, mounts fewer prosecutions and is run by a woman who had her civil liberties training as a career Home Office civil servant.

Not everything about Davies' warnings of the dangers of modern surveillance is convincing - he completely ignores the inability of poll tax officials to track all the adults in Britain, for example. But whenever I began to doubt him, I looked round this Canary Wharf newspaper office and saw a spy camera staring at me and security guards trudging by. Neither stopped the IRA paying a visit, a failure which leads to the suggestive thought that their effect, if not their purpose, is to tame the law-abiding rather than catch the criminal.