Here’s an interesting factlet. A couple of miles from my house, in one of those villages with a double-barreled name which could belong to an old English actor, behind a 900 year old English parish church, is the grave of George Orwell.
I’ve mentioned Orwell before. It was 1948 when he wrote the book which gave the word Orwellian to the English language. To get the title he simply swapped the last 2 digits. I’ve called 1984 the usage scenario for a 36 year long government IT project (and observed that like may government IT projects it looks like it will take twice the anticipated time to complete).
I fret about privacy, and I’m not alone Governments Information commissioner has said Fears that the UK would “sleep-walk into a surveillance society” have become a reality, and Orwell came up in a report prepared for him
Our image of state surveillance is often shaped by novels and films. [Like Franz Kafka’s The Trial or George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four ] These highlight the crucial role of information (or lack of it, for the surveilled) within bureaucratic governments, alongside the constant threat of totalitarianism (paragraph 3.6)
I think we should be wary of more than just governments- it would be naive to automatically trust large companies to do the right thing with information about us. This morning I was in a meeting where we talked about some of the possibilities of Windows Live ID, and it was plain to all in the room that we need to go further to prove that we deserve people’s trust. Symmetry plays a part – government and businesses have information, the Surveilled do not. For example if Microsoft records where you have used your live ID that information is “asymmetric” – you’re unaware that it is being gathered, and you can’t use it. If we mail you a list of sites where your ID is used each month and which of your details they accessed then that can work for you.
The home office has come out with proposals for Council staff and Doctors to tip off police about people who might be potential offenders – with warning signs including “Heavy drinking, mental health problems and a violent family background”. A police network of those willing to inform on prospective criminals was a key part of the infrastructure Orwell described in 1984. So was a huge network of surveillance cameras. The report I quoted above also says “In March 2005, the Association of Chief Police Officers demanded a national network of Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) [Cameras with capacity to process reads at a rate of] 50 million by 2008 ” (paragraph 9.5.5). But even senior police officers are beginning to worry about the level of surveillance. Over the weekend the BBC reported the Deputy chief constable of Hampshire Ian Readhead, expressing concern after a small town spent £10,000 on CCTV. “If it’s in our villages, are we really moving towards an Orwellian situation where cameras are at every street corner ? … I really don’t think that’s the kind of country that I want to live in.” he said.
The police can see the value of cameras in the fighting crime, but not if that means going to 1984 lengths. In the same way I want to see Microsoft technology in great Internet applications – some will use personal information. The flip side is the quote I used from Caspar Bowden “It is very easy to collect all of our data and the fact that it is there means governments will come up with a good list of reasons as to why they need access”. How much of your information should we keep ?
Of course I can’t mention Hampshire police on the BBC without giving you this link – you know the old , old Joke which ends, “Police say they have nothing to go on” … ?
This post originally appeared on my technet blog.