Your cash point is watching you

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The Independent Online
I was just about to use the cash machine outside my bank the other day when I saw a small notice pasted on it, which said: "If you should see any unusual or unexpected device or object fitted to the outside of this machine, please report it to the bank."

I wondered what kind of thing they meant. A limpet mine, perhaps, fitted by some unhappy customer to whom the bank had given wrong advice, resulting in some petty bankruptcy which had contrived to annoy them?

Or a camera, perhaps? Maybe there was some remote control camera attached somewhere to the cash machine which was focusing on my bank card as I put it in, and maybe somewhere there was a sharp-eyed criminal at that very moment reading off the Pin number.

"Hey, are you going to use the machine or aren't you?" said the man behind me.

"I am looking to see if there are any unusual or suspicious objects attached to this machine," I said with dignity. "It is for the good of everyone."

"There's only one unusual object attached to this machine, said the man sharply, "and it's taking a bleeding long time."

Silently I put my card in the machine (shielding its number from the man behind me) and did my transaction. But I couldn't help thinking about that strange notice and its implications, so after I had put the notes in my wallet, I entered the bank and went over to one of those young men sitting at a desk in the main foyer, ready to dispense advice on the bank's services.

(Have you noticed how many bank employees are now allowed to sit in freedom, like trusty prisoners brought out from behind bars and given a bit of exercise? Do you think they ever make a dash for the outside world and vanish into the crowd, never to be seen again? Of course, you can be certain that none of these young men and women sitting at desks has any of the bank's money about their person, otherwise they would be a sitting target for bank robbers. I wonder if anyone has ever come in with a gun and stuck up a young bankperson at a table, saying: "OK, I want some financial advice, and I want it good and fast!")

"Yes, sir, can I help?"

I suddenly realised the young man had been speaking to me for a minute or more.

"Yes," I said. "I want to report a suspicious-looking object attached to the cash machine outside."

"Do you, by George?" he said. "And what is it?"

"It's a little adhesive notice stuck on to the screen," I said.

"And what does it say?"

"It says: `If you should see any unusual or unexpected device or object fitted to the outside of this machine, please report it to the bank.' "

"I see," said the young man, looking at me oddly. "And you think that's suspicious?"

"I certainly do," I said. "I have never seen it there before. I wonder who can have put it there."

"Did it not occur to you that the bank might have put it there?"

"Of course it did, young man. But it also occurred to me that someone might have put it there wanting us to think that the bank had put it there."

"Why would they want us to do that?"

"So that if they later really did attach a suspicious device to the cash machine, nobody would report it, because they would assume that someone else had read the notice and already reported it," I said, not displeased with my theory.

"Nice idea, sir," said the young man. "But the truth is altogether more mundane. The fact is that we are doing a customer reaction survey. What you probably don't realise is that the screen on which you read the cash machine's instructions has a hidden camera behind it, which can film you during the transaction. We are doing a series of tests on customers."

"What sort of tests?"

"Putting different notices on the screen and studying people's immediate reactions to them. This one about spotting any suspicious-looking device is the first one. There will be others, warning you to be suspicious of the person behind you in the queue, and so on."

"What's the point?"

"It enables us to spot the suggestible customer. Anyone who ignores the notice, or laughs, will be a hard nut to crack, but anyone who obeys the notice or takes it seriously is the sort of person we think we can sell things to, and we grab him as soon as he comes in the bank. Incidentally, sir, do you need more insurance? It's now so easily done through the bank ...."

I still don't know if he was pulling my leg or not. Still, he got me thoroughly insured, and that's the main thing.