Features

net.wars: The surveillance chronicles

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 05 March 2010


There is a touching moment at the end of the new documentary Erasing David, which had an early screening last night for some privacy specialists. In it, Katie, the wife of the film's protagonist, filmmaker David Bond, muses on the contrast between the England she grew up on and the "ugly" one being built around her.

Wendy M Grossman

Of course, many people become nostalgic for a kinder past when they reach a certain age, but Katie Bond is probably barely 30, and what she is talking about is the engorging Database State (PDF).

Anyone watching this week's House of Lords debate on the Digital Economy Bill probably knows how she feels. (The Open Rights Group has advice on appropriate responses.)

At the beginning, however, Katie's biggest concern is that her husband is proposing to "disappear" for a month leaving her alone with their toddler daughter and her late-stage pregnancy.

"You haven't asked," she points out firmly. "You're leaving me with all the child care." Plus, what if the baby comes? They agree in that case he'd better un-disappear pretty quickly.

And so David heads out on the road with a Blackberry, a rucksack, and an increasingly paranoid state of mind. Is he safe being video-recorded interviewing privacy advocates in Brussels? Did "they" plant a bug in his gear? Is someone about to pounce while he's sleeping under a desolate Welsh tree?

There are real trackers: Cerberus detectives Duncan Mee and Cameron Gowlett, who took up the challenge to find him given only his (rather common) name. They try an array of approaches, both high- and low-tech. Having found the Brussels video online, they head to London's St Pancras Station to check out arriving Eurostar trains. They send the URL of a Web site they've set up to show where they think he is and send the URL to his Blackberry to see if they can trace him when he clicks on the link.

In the post-screening discussion, Mee added some new detail. When they found out, for example, that David was deleting his Facebook page (which he announced on the site and of which they'd already made a copy), they set up a dummy "secret replacement" and attempted to friend his entire list of friends. About a third of Bond's friends accepted the invitation. The detectives took up several party invitations thinking he might show.

"The Stasi would have had to have a roomful of informants," said Mee. Instead, Facebook let them penetrate Bond's social circle quickly on a tiny budget. Even so, and despite all that information out on the Internet, much of the detectives' work was far more social engineering than database manipulation, although there was plenty of that, too. David himself finds the material they compile frighteningly comprehensive.

In between pieces of the chase, the filmmakers include interviews with an impressive array of surveillance victims, politicians (David Blunkett, David Davis), and privacy advocates including No2ID's Phil Booth and Action on Rights for Children's Terri Dowty. (Surprisingly, no one from Privacy International, I gather because of scheduling issues.)

One section deals with the corruption of databases, the kind of thing that can make innocent people unemployable or, in the case of Operation Ore, destroy lives such as that of Simon Bunce. As Bunce explains in the movie, 98.2 percent of the Operation Ore credit card transactions were fraudulent.

Perhaps the most you-have-got-to-be-kidding moment is when former minister David Blunkett says that collecting all this information is "explosive" and that "Government needs to be much more careful" and not just assume that the public will assent. Where was all this people-must-agree stuff when he was relentlessly championing the ID card ? Did he – my god! – learn something from having his private life exposed in the press?

As part of his preparations, Bond investigates: what exactly do all these organizations know about him?

  • He sends out more than 80 subject access requests to government agencies, private companies, and so on.
  • Amazon.com sends him a pile of paper the size of a phone book.
  • Transport for London tell hims that even though his car is exempt his movements in and out of the charging zone are still recorded and kept.
  • This is a very English moment: after bashing his head on his desk in frustration over the length of his wait on hold, when a woman eventually starts to say, "Sorry for keeping you…" he replies, "No problem".

    Some of these companies know things about him he doesn't or has forgotten: the time he "seemed angry" on the phone to a customer service representative. "What was I angry about on November 21, 2006?" he wonders.

    But probably the most interesting journey, after all, is Katie's. She starts with some exasperation: her husband won't sign this required form giving the very good nursery they've found the right to do anything it wants with their daughter's data. "She has no data," she pleads.

    But she will have. And in the Britain she's growing up in, that could be dangerous. Because privacy isn't isolation and it isn't not being found. Privacy means being able to eat sand without fear.


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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).