It is a chilling, dystopian account of what Britain will look like 10 years from now: a world in which Fortress Britain uses fleets of tiny spy-planes to watch its citizens, of Minority Report-style pre-emptive justice, of an underclass trapped in sink-estate ghettos under constant state surveillance, of worker drones forced to take on the lifestyle and values of the mega-corporation they work for, and of the super-rich hiding out in gated communities constantly monitored by cameras and private security guards.
This Orwellian vision of the future was compiled on the orders of the UK’s information commissioner – the independent watchdog meant to guard against government and private companies invading the privacy of British citizens and exploiting the masses of information currently held on each and every one of us – by the Surveillance Studies Network, a group of academics.
On Friday, this study, entitled A Report on the Surveillance Society, was picked over by a select group of government mandarins, politicians, police officers and academics in Edinburgh. It is unequivocal in its findings, with its first sentence reading simply: “We live in a surveillance society.” The information commissioner, Richard Thomas, endorses the report. He says: “Today, I fear that we are, in fact, waking up to a surveillance society that is already all around us.”
The academics who compiled the study based their vision of the future not on wild hypotheses but on existing technology, statements made about the intentions of government and private companies and studies by other think tanks, regulators, professional bodies and academics.
The report authors say that they believe the key theme of the future will be “pervasive surveillance” aimed at tracking and controlling people and pre-empting behaviour. The authors also say that their glimpse of the future is “fairly conservative. The future spelled out in the report is nowhere near as dystopian and authoritarian as it could be.”
Here’s how 2017 might look…
The Jones family are returning to Britain from holiday in America. “It’s hard to know the difference between the two countries by what the family experience at the border,” say the Surveillance Report authors. Britain, America, all EU countries and all members of the G10 have outsourced their immigration and border control services to massive private companies. In this vignette, the futurologists give the company the name BorderGuard.
Thanks to the never-ending war on terror, these governments have developed “smart borders” using hidden surveillance technologies. Cameras and scanners at passport control monitor faces, irises and fingerprints checking them off against records of biometric passports, or the British ID card system. BorderGuard has access to state and transnational databases and can also data-mine information on individuals – such as consumer transactions – via a paid-for service provided by specialist companies trading in information held on every individual in the land.
For families like the Joneses, crossing borders is relatively swift and painless. The wealth of information held on them means they can be quickly identified and processed. But citizens of nations not signed up to the BorderGuard scheme face hostile and lengthy investigations while crossing frontiers.
Racial profiling is now the norm. Asian features inevitably mean being pulled to one side – whether or not you carry a biometric passport or ID card.
Retail chains and mega-malls now use huge shared databases – which began with data-mining reward card information – to create a “brandscape” for every shopper.
Smart tags buried in a shopper’s clothing “talk” to scanners in shops. The system then connects to consumer databases, revealing where the clothing was bought and by whom and what other purchases the person has made. The system knows who you are, where you live, what you like and don’t like. Intelligent billboards at eye level then immediately flash up adverts dove-tailed to the consumer profile of the individual.
The wealthiest consumer-citizen can even become a “cashless shopper”. For £200, a chip can be implanted in the human body which is loaded with a person’s bank and credit details. From then on, it’s their arm that will be scanned in a shop, not their credit card. “Cashless shoppers” also get first-class service in mega-malls, with special lounges, spas and massage facilities reserved only for them. Urban myths, however, are springing up that muggers are targeting these elite consumers and cutting the chip from their arms. There are also concerns about hackers being able to upload viruses to the chip or empty the chipholder’s account.
Tagged Kids Scandals about child abductions and murders during school hours mean teachers prefer tagging a child to facing legal liability for their injury in a court. Drug testing in schools has also become an accepted part of life following pressure by the government to identify problem children earlier and earlier in life. What children eat in schools is also monitored by parents, as boys and girls are required to swipe their school card every time they visit the canteen. The card contains information on school attendance, academic achievement, drug-test results, internet access and sporting activities. The card’s records are used to assess whether the child has passed or failed their citizenship programme.
Shops are also monitoring children in order to tap into the lucrative youth market.”Children,” the report says, “are gradually becoming socialised into accepting body surveillance, location tracking and the remote monitoring of their dietary intake as normal.”
Most cities are divided between gated private communities, patrolled by corporate security firms (which keep insurance costs to a minimum) and high-crime former council estates. On most estates, private companies are tasked to deal with social evils.
Offenders have the option of having a chip voluntarily implanted in their arm so they can be monitored at home using scanners and sensors. Estates can be subject to “area-wide curfews”, following outbursts of antisocial behaviour, which ban anyone under 18 from entering or leaving the estate from dusk until dawn.
Community wardens armed with Tasers enforce the law. CCTV cameras can be viewed by residents at home on their television’s security channel.
In gated communities, meanwhile, no-one can get in or out unless their car’s number plate is authorised by the automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) devices located on gates. There are now so many ANPR cameras across the land that it’s almost impossible to drive the length of a street without details of your car being logged by the state.
The aesthetics of surveillance Security has been “aestheticised” – incorporated into the design of architecture and infrastructure – so that it is almost unnoticeable now. “It is ubiquitous but it has disappeared,” the report authors say. Anti-suicide-bomber bollards outside embassies and government buildings are secreted in the ground, only being activated in an emergency when passers-by breach the range of security sensors.
Anti-government protesters are monitored by small remote-control spy-planes, which were introduced for the 2012 London Olympics but remained a permanent fixture.
CCTV is now embedded at eye level in lamp-posts to enable the use of facial recognition technology.
Protest and virtual surveillance Following protests, individual demonstrators can be monitored by camera until private security contractors for the local authority in which the demo took place get a chance to question them. Helmet-mounted cameras scan the biometrics of anyone being questioned. All guards and police are also now monitored by surveillance devices in their handheld computers. Ironically, this has triggered civil liberties concerns within the police union.
The report uses two “protesters”, Ben and Aaron, as an example of how police might treat dissenters. When they are taken into custody by private security guards in Westminster, Ben undergoes the usual DNA swab, which is analysed instantaneously, and hands over his ID card for scanning. ID cards are still theoretically voluntary, but not having one makes life almost impossible. Aaron is a refusenik and doesn’t own a card. That means he can’t apply for a government job or claim benefits or student loans. He can’t travel by plane or even train. To make matters worse, Aaron is a young black man – meaning he is deemed a “high category suspect” and is routinely stopped and brought in to the nearest police station for questioning.
Once Ben is released, police monitoring systems piggy-back on his hand-held device to track him as he travels across the city. He’s also been put on a communications watchlist which means all his internet and e-mail traffic is saved by his ISP and passed to police. As most phone calls are online now, police also get access to these communications as well.
Call centres monitor everything that staff do and surveillance information is used to recruit staff. Potential employees are subjected to biometric and psychometric testing, as well as lifestyle surveys. “Their lives outside work,” the authors say, “and their background, are the subject of scrutiny. It is felt to be increasingly important that the lifestyle profile of the employee match those of the customers to ensure better customer service.” Recruitment consultants now frequently discard any CV which does not contain volunteered health information.
Once hired, staff are subjected to sporadic biometric testing which point to potential health and psychological problems. Thanks to iris-scanning at a gym connected to the company, employees can be pulled up at annual assessments for not maintaining their health. Periodic psychometric testing also reveals if staff attitudes have changed and become incompatible with company values.
Big Brother is looking after you Homes in the ever-growing number of retirement villages are fitted with the “telecare” system, with motion detectors in every room, baths with inbuilt heart monitors, toilets which measure blood sugar levels and all rooms fitted with devices to detect fire, flood and gas leaks. Panic buttons are also installed in every room. Fridges have RFID scanners which tell the neighbourhood grocery store that pensioners are running short on provisions. The goods are then delivered direct to the doorstep.
Huge databases in hospitals are able to compare tests on patients throughout the country. This allows doctors to red-flag risk factors earlier than ever before, meaning that a patient’s statistical risk of suffering, for example, a heart attack, are predicted with much greater accuracy. The NHS will be locked in a battle with insurance companies who want access to health information for commercial purposes. The temptation for the NHS is the large amounts of money on offer. The authors point out that Iceland sold its national DNA database to private companies for research and profit in 2004.
Those rich enough can sign up to “personal information management services” (Pims) which monitor all the information that exists about an individual – a person’s so-called “data shadow”. The Pims system corrects incorrect information held by government or private companies.
Those who can’t afford Pims have to live with the impact that incorrect data can have on their lives, such as faulty credit ratings. “Some are condemned to a purgatory of surveillance and an inability to access information,” the report authors say.
But for other people total surveillance has become an accepted way of life. Some voluntarily carry out surveillance on their whole lives – so-called “life-logging” where an individual uploads online details in realtime about everything they do.