Big Brother could cut MoD phone bill: Security firms have the technology to keep tabs on staff, writes Nigel Cope

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The Independent Online
STAFF at the Ministry of Defence can expect draconian rules for the use of telephones to be introduced after a survey showed the MoD was wasting almost pounds 7m a year on its phone bill.

Itemised bills that highlight extensions suspected of misuse and bars on premium-rate numbers would prevent servicemen ringing mum in New Zealand or developing a long-term telephone relationship with Daisy Hot Lips from the phone in the officers' mess.

But the MoD's predicament is good news for the UK's burgeoning security industry. Office monitoring - or surveillance, to give it its more sinister term - is becoming big business.

The British Security Industry Association, which represents companies selling everything from access-control systems to closed-circuit televisions for shopping centres, says its members' combined sales have grown from pounds 1.3bn to pounds 1.7bn in the past two years. The unregulated sector is estimated to be worth an additional pounds 1.3bn.

'The market has been growing right through the recession,' the association says.

Telephone monitoring is now so common that it is surprising that the MoD failed to introduce an efficient system. Companies can bar international calls or premium rate services such as 0898 numbers through their own switchboards without contacting BT or Mercury.

There is a hint of Orwell in the technology now available. As well as telephone bars and logging systems, an array of technological gadgetry is used to check what staff are up to. It is not quite electronic tagging, but it is close.

Swipe cards, used to gain access to buildings, can tell where in the building employees are and where they have tried to get into.

Access control systems using these cards are now extremely sophisticated, but the market has been hit by the recession as it tends to be tied to new buildings.

According to Blick Time Systems, cards can be used not just to restrict access, but to monitor what time staff arrive, which parts of the building they go into and where they spend the most time. Staff movements can then be studied on an audit.

Smart cards, with microchips capable of carrying a store of information, are the current big thing. Some can store visual images, meaning that on arrival at the office or factory gate, an image of the cardholder will appear on the security guard's screen. Heathrow airport uses such a system.

Others, such as those used by Merrill Lynch at its City offices, can be charged with money in the form of credit so staff can buy their lunch in the canteen.

The security industry is anxious to play down any suggestion of a cloak and dagger image, with time and motion managers stalking staff.

'It's not about spies and spooks, or industrial paranoia,' said Ian Johnson of IJA, which advises companies on security. 'It's sensible management procedure and good financial management.'