by MICHAEL HANLON
The innocent, so we keep being told, have nothing to fear. After all, the ever greater encroachment on our civil liberties is all in the interests of security — and who could possibly be against security? That is the argument used by Big Brothers ever since Orwell dreamt up his vile, all-seeing dictator in the book 1984.
Ealing Council is using baked bean cans to spy on ‘enviromcriminals Every day, it seems, something else comes along that makes you wonder if it will ever be possible again for an Englishman to go about his life in anonymity.
Want a passport? Actually, we need your life history first, thank you. Thinking about putting your rubbish out? You’ll need to know what, where and when.
And if that isn’t enough, then cameras hidden in fake baked-bean cans will check that you are obeying the environmental rules.
Meanwhile, every move you make, every breath you take, is being monitored by millions of CCTV cameras.
Drive your car and you will be assessed, computerised and located. Soon, if some ministers have their way, every mile you drive will be tracked by satellite.
In this Orwellian world, all your financial transactions are accessible to others, especially the thousands of ‘data miners’ whose livelihoods depend on especially the thousands of ‘data whose livelihoods depend on knowing whether you prefer fish fingers or caviar.
And don’t even think about using the internet, which already has a fair picture of your lifestyle and buying habits.
Of course, it is possible to be too paranoid. Whatever the risks to our peace of mind, few would now want to do without the internet, mobile phones and other everyday technology.
And, to be fair, you must make some compromises if you want to live in a relatively safe, ordered society such as ours. BUT I suspect that I’m not alone in thinking things have gone too far. As the civil rights lobby group Liberty says: ‘We seem to be moving from a society where information isn’t shared unless there is specific reason it should be to a society where all information is shared unless there is a reason it should not be.’
Most worryingly, the new snooping powers will remain on the statute books perhaps long enough for some future, far more authoritarian, government to make malicious use of them.
Liberty points out that mass data collecting and sharing by government agencies will allow the powers-that-be ‘essentially to go on fishing expeditions through existing databases without having any suspicion of unlawful behaviour’.
The fact is, it is now impossible to live your life ‘off the cards’ in modern Britain, or indeed anywhere in the West.
So what can you do to pull at least a little wool over Big Brother’s all-seeing eye? Here are my tips:
1. Refuse to hand over ANY personal details unless necessary. If you buy a fridge or a cooker, you will routinely be asked to give your name and address. Refuse.
It’s not ‘for the guarantee’ but instead it will go on a database to be exploited by the company you’re buying from and possibly sold on to others.
2. Do not fill in ‘customer satisfaction’ surveys. These are usually attempts to harvest valuable marketing information and have nothing to do with your satisfaction. Be wary of marketing surveys. If you do cooperate, demand payment — proper payment. A ‘free’ pen is not enough for your time and your precious data.
3. Use cash wherever possible.
Vast amounts of money are being spent by the world’s banks on developing software to ‘mine’ the data revealed by the credit and debit card-spending habits of millions. Every time you pay for a meal, rent a car or buy a plane ticket you are leaving a trail of information. A fistful of fivers is, in contrast, untrackable.
4. Cut up your supermarket ‘loyalty’ cards. Today. For the measly reward of a pound a week off your shopping bill, you are providing these companies — some of the most profitable in Europe — with priceless data about your probable income, spending habits, size of your family and social class.
5. Stay put. If you really want to remain anonymous, you will, sadly, have to avoid the joys of travel. Modern border controls are just the tip of a vast iceberg of computerised databases into which all your details will be entered every time you enter and leave a country.
6. Turn off your mobile phone when you are not using it.
Mobile phones constantly emit signals, which means the network operators can — and do — track their whereabouts. If you are really serious about maintaining privacy at all costs, do without a mobile altogether.
7. Protect your computer.
Either turn it off when it is not being used, go off-line or install up-to-date firewall protection.
As long as you are on-line, it is in danger of being infiltrated by ‘spyware’ which will search your hard drive for passwords, bank account details and so on.
8. Assume any form of electronic communication, including mobile phone calls, text messaging and email, is totally unsecure. A good rule is to never send an email or text message to anyone containing information that you would not be happy to be posted on the wall of your office for all to see.
9. Avoid ‘registration’ on internet sites. To access ‘secure’ sites, you will be asked not only for your name but, increasingly, your address, occupation, income etc. If you have to register, make sure you enter ONLY details that are compulsory.
10. Tell your children NEVER to give their (or your) personal details to internet sites unless you have scrutinised them first.
Children have a natural tendency to tell the truth.
Sadly, this makes them easy targets for unscrupulous online marketeers, or worse.
11. Lie, shamelessly. If you are bombarded with requests for personal details by people who have no legitimate need to know them, then make it up.
12. NEVER respond to coldcallers, either on the telephone or on the doorstep. Simply hang up or tell them (politely — they are only doing their job) that you are not interested. Salesmen you talk to could well pass on valuable information to mailing list merchants.
13. Keep your eye on the cameras. Some 4.2 million CCTVs have been set up in most towns and cities, usually by the councils and often in partnership with the police. CCTV is largely unregulated, although its use must comply with the 1998 Data Protection Act. However, unless you can prove you were the main focus of a CCTV camera or that something personal has been revealed, you have no automatic rights to see any footage.
14. Be wary of competitions, prize draws, letters which start ‘Congratulations, you have been selected …’ and phone-in premium- rate lotteries. These are often attempts to gather data to be sold to mailing list companies etc. If an offer drops on your doormat that sounds too good to be true, it is. Bin it.
There’s no doubt Big Brother is alive, well and more pervasive in today’s Britain than Orwell could ever have foreseen. Which is why all of us should do our best to keep out of his gaze.