Much talk of living in a surveillance society last week. The Government considering the admissibility of phone-tap evidence in court, police stopping and searching everyone out after 6pm, the security services bugging MPs, and the usual wringing of hands in the Sunday papers about the number of CCTV cameras in operation. Not something we entirely understand in this column, given our commitment to transparency. Have nothing to hide, we say, and vigilance has nothing to find.
And don't bring up the innocent victims of the Stasi and the KGB. We cheapen their suffering by comparing someone collating what we buy at Tesco, and then leaving the information on a train, to what was done to them. It is laziness of mind to make no distinction between the evils of authoritarianism and data-banking, between the ruthless extinction of dissent and gross incompetence. You know you're really living in a police state when files do not go missing.
There is illogicality in it, too. The same newspapers that warn us we are sleepwalking into totalitarianism give ample evidence on other pages of why we need more cameras on the streets, not fewer. A society can lose the right to go unwatched; and where knives proliferate and bomb-makers daily plot the overthrow of the ungodly, we are mad to insist on the inviolability of privacy. Being left to our own devices is desirable only so long as our devices don't explode.
The same holds true in the matter of MI5 scrutinising the professional and personal lives of MPs – a distinction the latter have blurred themselves by taking public money and making private use of it: bestowing funds on their spouses and their offspring (and no doubt their live-in lovers, rent boys, dominatrices and gigolos, to boot) in return for undertaking unquantifiable "research". With the example of Derek Conway and his proud to be rich and pissed progeny before us, there is not an argument to be made for granting our representatives an hour of privacy. Hard to imagine anyone wanting to go through the millions of feet of tape logging their seedy indiscretions, but that's another matter. Perhaps the Government would give us the funds to pay our children to do it.
There I was, anyway, in the middle of last week, lingering in bed so that the cameras could not catch me, cleaning my teeth under the blankets just in case a lone secret policeman with a telescopic lens wanted evidence of what I'd been eating the night before, listening to Timothy Garton Ash and Nick Rosen discussing this very subject on the Today programme. Try keeping anyone, in these privacy-threatened days, off the Today programme. Neither speaker, to be fair, went Orwellian. Garton Ash was more worried about state bungling than state evil, and Rosen introduced me to the concept of going "off grid".
Going "off grid", just in case it is as new to readers of this column as it was to me, means achieving anonymity at the cost of living like a hippie: shopping outside the system, bartering, cycling rather than driving, scavenging from supermarket bins, doing without a mains water supply, living where you can't be traced – on a boat or in a yurt – and swapping your supermarket loyalty card with a friend every few months in order to prevent tracking of "specific purchase patterns" – the man who one week puts peanut butter on his toast, and the next Oxford marmalade, being a puzzle to the state.
If you think this is a high price to pay for privacy, log on to find out what else Nick Rosen recommends – being careful, of course, to use someone else's computer. How to buy an untraceable mobile phone is my favourite. You go to a town you have never visited before. You ascertain it has no CCTV cameras, though how you do that without being caught on a CCTV camera if you're wrong is not explained. Wearing a rubber mask and hood and crawling through the town in the dead of night on your belly is my suggestion. If enough people are reading Nick Rosen you'll find others doing exactly what you're doing. Though again no advice is given on how to spot a secret policeman similarly disguised. (Don't invite anybody you meet in this way back to your yurt, I say.)
Once you've found the ideal town you go in search of a homeless person. I am not making this up. Having found the homeless person – the assumption is that no town in Britain does not have one – you give him the money to buy you a pay-as-you go phone, taking care to ensure he buys it from a shop that has no CCTV cameras outside. Needless to say, the wives and children of secret service agents are, even as I write, scanning footage of homeless people buying pay-as-you-go phones for off-gridders who forgot to check for cameras. God help us if that information ever gets left on a train.
We make our own choices. Rather than crawl through the country on my belly finding homeless people to buy me phones, I'd ring MI5 direct. I'd appear on the Today programme and tell the country what I think about everything. I'd write a column for a national newspaper and describe myself lying under the covers and brushing lobster out of my teeth. I'd go on Big Brother in the hope the cameras would catch me singing "Ich Habe Genug" (that's my favourite Bach cantata, I want you to know) in the shower. I'd beg my agent to book me on to I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! and make a play for other women while the whole country watches and then fly back to appear on Jonathan Ross and wonder for the cameras why my wife has given me a black eye. I'd join Facebook. I don't know what Facebook is, or, more properly, don't understand the concept, but I'd join it. Tell everyone who my friends are. Discuss my bowel movements. The condition of my skin.
You take my point. No doubt we'd feel differently if we were truly living in a police state, but as we're free as birds the thing we dread is not invasion of our privacy but its opposite – obscurity. It's invisibility that terrifies us, the thought of a camera anywhere not noticing we're there. Not too many cameras but too few. What else is the fame everyone under 20 craves but a longing to be filmed, filed, fingered to the bottom of their souls?
Those high-minded commentators who fear for our human dignity are a generation or more too late. We have no human dignity left to lose.Reuse content