Features

net.wars: A fine and private place

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 03 November 2006


One of the things about being an expatriate is this: whenever there?s a problem you always think that changing countries might be the solution. So one of the games we like to play is where-can-we-go. Global warming means the Gulfstream will stop or change direction and Britain will freeze... where can we go? Britain is awash in CCTV cameras and wants to bring in a national identity card. Where can we go?

Wendy M Grossman

My usual answer is New Zealand, based on no knowledge whatsoever: it just seems so far from here that anything that's a problem here surely can?t be one there, too. And I know so little about the country that it's easy to fantasize being left alone to roam the hills among the sheep. Yes, I know: it can't really be like that, and I'd hate it if it were.

But apparently when it comes to privacy the answers are Germany or Canada. In a pinch, Belgium, Austria, Greece, Hungary, or Argentina. At least, that?s the situation according to Privacy International's new human rights survey.

New Zealand's score is a good bit lower, although you could improve it by avoiding employment; workplace monitoring was the one area in which it scored really badly. Of course, the raw numbers never really tell you the quality of life in those countries; and most people don't want to play where-can-we-go. Most people, being sensible, want the place they do live, and where they have their cultural and social ties, to be better.

The problem with talking about privacy is that it sounds so abstract. It?s arguable, for example, that the biggest worry in many people?s lives in the US is not privacy but how to pay for health care. A friend, for example, recently had occasion to go to the emergency room for a few tests; she estimated the bill at $2,000 and her share of it at $500.

In that sense, the Information Commissioner's new survey, A Surveillance Society, launched alongside the annual data protection conference, is more alarming, in part because it investigates the consequences of constant surveillance and the impact it has on the realities of daily life.

What can be done and is being done is to create a class system of great rigidity: surveillance, it says, brings social sorting to define target markets and risky populations. The airline that knows how much you travel decides accordingly how to treat you; the health service decides how to treat you based on its assessment of your worthiness for treatment. Welfare becomes an exercise in deterring fraud rather than assuring safety. It is, the IC's survey says, risk management rather than the original promise of universal health care. That it's not a conspiracy, as the IC survey repeats several times, makes it almost more alarming: there is no one specific enemy to fight.

This should not be surprising to anyone who read, some years back, the software engineer Ellen Ullman's wonderful essay collection, Close to the Machine. Everything the IC is talking about was laid out there in detail, including the exact process by which it happens. Her story concerned a database created to help ensure that people with AIDS got all the help that was available to them. Slowly, the system morphed; in her words, it - infected - its users. The fuzzy, human logic by which one person might get an extra blanket was replaced by inexorable computer rules. Then it became hostile, trying to ensure that no one got more than they were entitled to - the precise stage Britain is at right now with respect to welfare.

In another case, the fact of a system?s existence led a boss to wonder whether he could monitor his sole employee to find out what she did all day. The employee had worked for him for decades and had picked up his children from school. This is, I suppose, where we are with National Identity cards. We can find out what everyone does all day, so why shouldn?t we?

Of course, Britain is famous for its class system and the anti-democratic nature of it. But if there was one thing you could say for the old ways, the class differences were clearly visible on the outside. Accent and habits of speech, as George Bernard Shaw observed more than a century ago in Pygmalion, determined how you were treated, and you knew what to expect. Social sorting via surveillance is more democratic in the sense that you don?t have to have a title or the right accent to be a big spender the airlines will treat like gold dust/ But the rules are hidden and insidious; rather than open and well-understood.

So: where can we go (PDF)? We know where we will go: the grave, obviously, but before then, where else?

A lot of people like the sound of Ireland - they speak English, it's close, and it?s pretty. But it ranks only a tier above the UK and will always been under pressure to adopt British standards because of the common travel area. Some people like Sweden, for its longstanding commitment to social welfare. It, too, ranks low on the privacy scale. It will have to be Canada. But it's cold, I hear you cry. Nah. Global warming. Those igloos will be melting any day now. Off to Winnipeg (DOC)!


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).