Review of Simon Davies's
Big Brother - Britain's Web of Surveillance and the New Technological Order
Pan, 1996, £9.99
ISBN 0 330 33556 1
Date of publication: 30 September 1996
Citation: Lloyd, I (1996), 'Simon Davies's Big Brother - Britain's Web of Surveillance and the New Technological Order', Book Review, 1996 (3) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <http://elj.warwick.ac.uk/elj/jilt/bookrev/3lloyd/>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/jilt/1996_3/lloyd/>
The year 1984 is now but a fading memory and George Orwell's nightmare vision of a society to come remains just that. Indeed in many respects, developments in information technology make the prospect of it becoming a reality more and more remote. A feature of the 1984 society is that those in authority possessed a virtual monopoly of information. The proliferation of computers and the development of the Internet and WWW puts extensive communications capabilities into the hands of 'Everyman'.
The Orwellian vision of a society in which every individual act is monitored by or on behalf of those in public authority is not dissimilar in concept from the works of earlier authors such as Plato with his Republic and Thomas More's Utopia. It may be that it is the element of technology which transforms visions of a surveillance society from dream to nightmare. Simon Davies goes on to draw another literary comparison. 'The society we are developing now', he suggests, 'is more Huxley-like than Orwellian. It is Brave New World.' The key component of the distinction is the sense that, albeit as the result of life-long conditioning, conformity, and surveillance to ensure this, comes from within the individual members of society rather than being imposed by some external and authoritarian force. The differentiation of the two modern images of the society to come is an interesting one but is perhaps of questionable validity. Much of the imagery in 1984 and indeed the very phrase Big Brother is familial in nature. Although the reader may recognise the signs of totalitarianism, the closing lines of the novel tell a different tale. Winston Smith comes to 'love Big Brother'.
It is a feature of all the works referred to above that the distinction between the public and private sectors is almost invisible. To an extent, this is paralleled by modern developments. The ease with which data may be transferred from one computer network to another, a phenomonen epitomised in the Internet, is serving to break down boundaries between the sectors. Ever increasing amounts of personal data are gathered in an attempt to satisfy the appetites of IT system. As a French saying has it, however, appetite comes with eating, and the availability of and perceived need for data feed each other incessantly. Techniques such as data mining strive to extract the last ounce of value from raw data whilst the practice of data matching enables linkages to be made between the contents of what were previously discrete data banks.
In the past, surveillance has been considered something which is primarily carried out by or on behalf of society as a whole (government). Although the act of placing an individual under surveillance may of itself modify individuals' behaviour patterns, in general surveillance is a means to an end which may affect significantly other interests of the data subject. An obvious example might be the interception of communications to and from an individual suspected of involvement in criminal activity. The act of surveillance may lead to arrest, interrogation, trial and imprisonment. In such examples it may be an essential ingredient of the surveillance that the individual affected should not be aware of the fact. The notion of privacy, by contrast has tended to be regarded as lying in the province of the private sector. In the United Kingdom, much of the debate on the need for a statutory right of privacy has centred on the activities of the media. In the 1970s the remit of the Committee on Privacy was restricted to the private sector - albeit contrary to the wishes of the committee. Although the concept of privacy has never admitted to a precise or unqualified definition, the act of invading privacy and its consequences are frequently linked directly and it is frequently the case that acts which infringe privacy do so because they are visible to their subject.
In the 1970s Alan Westin in his seminal work, Privacy and Freedom, identified three forms of surveillance; physical, psychological and data. At that time clear distinctions could be drawn between the three categories. Technology, like love, changes everything. Today, the boundaries are disappearing with the application of information technology linking surveillance techniques into a near seamless web of surveillance. Closed circuit television cameras operated on behalf of police forces monitor movement in the streets whilst countless thousands of cameras are operated by commercial operators to monitor our movements in shops and offices and car parks. Surveillance devices in the workplace allow employers to monitor the activities and efficiency of individuals. Even the Internet and WWW which are often touted as the last refuge of individualism might equally accurately be described as a surveillance system par excellence. An individual browsing the Web leaves electronic trails wherever he or she passes and systems such as anonymous retailers which enhance privacy are increasingly viewed with suspicion and disfavour by law makers and enforcers.
As far back as 1972 in considering the threats to privacy resulting from computerised data processing, the Younger Committee identified the prospect that :Because the data are stored, processed and often transmitted in a form which is not directly intelligible, few people may know what is in the records or what is happening to them.
In the report, this prospect was put forward as a cause of public concern. Much subsequent evidence would dispute this. Hundreds of thousands of individuals have applied for supermarket 'loyalty cards'. Such cards provide an invaluable point of linkage between details of individual transactions and the more generic stock management computer systems which have long been a feature of retail life. The seller now knows not only what has been bought but also who has bought it, when, in conjunction with what other products, and what form of payment has been tendered. Analysis of the information will reveal much about the individual's habits and life style which may be used as the basis for direct marketing targeted at the individual customer.
It is, of course, difficult to identify the spectre of totalitarianism behind a supermarket loyalty card, whilst the proliferation of CCTV cameras appears to command wide public support in the belief that the result will be a reduction in the level of crime. Many of the recorded instances of the misuse of information have occurred not as part of the original design but as a by product of the fact that the information is available. Information technology is an enormously powerful tool. It has the capability to record vast amounts of data which might previously have been held only in some human memory, to process it in ways which would previously have been impracticable, to transmit and share information with other information technology systems and networks on a world-wide basis and to retain the information for a potentially unlimited period of time. The notion of the black sheep of a family leaving debt and scandal behind to seek fame and fortune in a far flung country may well have been consigned to the history books. 'The Christian notion of Redemption' it has been suggested, 'is unknown to the computer'. Today's vast data banks contain the raw material for misuse and oppression on a scale previously unknown. The benefits of information technology are, of course, immense and many facets of modern are totally dependent upon the technology. Whilst dangers can never be eliminated, there is need for informed public debate as to options and choices. Proper regulation is in the interests of the technophile as much as the technophobe. Simon Davies' work represents a major contribution to the debate but might be criticised as for failing to recognise that in at least some respects, information technology challenges governments and large organisations to as great an extent as it does individuals. Individual fear of 'Big Brother' is matched by governmental concerns of a loss of national sovereignty in the face of the phenomenon of globalisation. Both for individuals and for states, the option identified in the book's conclusion of somehow opting out is an unrealistic one. We live in uncertain, challenging and interesting times. Few aspects of life will survive the information revolution unscathed but this is itself a natural process. Notions of privacy have evolved and changed over time. The average individual living in a town or city enjoys vastly more privacy that did our ancestors living in small villages where every action was known to and a source of comment for neighbours. In some senses, it may be suggested that there is too much privacy in modern society; that excessive interest in the lives of our neighbours has been replaced by excessive indifference. As Steven Rodata has commented, privacy can be regarded as an 'elitist concept' and that:... the right to be let alone can acquire a heavily negative meaning when this implies a disregard for the conditions of the less wealthy, abandoning the weakest to social violence.
To apply today's concepts to tomorrow's society is futile. Privacy both as a legal and a philosophical concept has a nebulous and at times contradictory meaning. In essence, it cannot exist in isolation but must always to be balanced against other interests and claims. To attempt to rely upon it as the basis for a schema to regulate information technology is surely doomed to failure, especially in the United Kingdom where there is no tradition of a legally enforceable right to privacy.
All too often, it would appear, we are willing to sell our electronic souls for a can of beans. This indeed is one of the key themes in Simon Davies' book. Personal privacy may be in danger of disappearing amidst public indifference and perhaps even acclaim. Privacy is the right to be free from unwanted surveillance. In the situation where individuals freely give out information about themselves, there clearly is no sense of invasion of privacy. We can no more make a person feel that his or her privacy has been breached than we can make that person appreciate a Beethoven symphony or an Oasis concert. Virtually every relevant survey of public opinion, however, indicates that personal privacy is highly valued as a concept. A partial answer to the conundrum may lie in the difficulty of defining privacy. Clearly many (perhaps most) of the population do not regard information gathering activities of this nature as a significant impact upon privacy. As soon as we move from the most abstract definition all too often we fail to recognise what it is or, more significantly, what might constitute its infringement or violation. If there is a criticism to be made of the book it is that the treatment of the legal response is limited and occasionally erroneous. A chapter entitled 'The Failure of Law' considers the operation of the Data Protection Act, stating:Perhaps the gravest limitation of the Data Protection Act is that it does next to nothing to prevent or limit the collection of information. The Act merely stipulates that information has to be collected by lawful means and for a purpose 'directly limited to a function or activity of the collector
'. The legislation, in fact, extends considerably beyond this. The first data protection principle requires that information be obtained 'fairly and lawfully' (emphasis added). This principle was at issue before the Data Protection Tribunal in the case of DPR v. Innovations in which it was held that a failure timeously to inform subjects of the purpose for which data was being sought rendered the acquisition unfair. In further cases brought before the Tribunal, the Community Charge Registrars for a variety of local authorities were held in breach of the fourth principle's strictures against the holding of excessive amounts of data when they sought information relating to matters such as date of birth which were not necessary for the collection of the tax.
Big Brother presents an apocalyptic view of the evolving information society. That information technology can be a powerful weapon in the hands of a tyrant is beyond question. That care needs to be taken in the design of IT systems to ensure that only such data as is required for the attainment of the particular purpose is again a truism. Equally, however, account must be taken of the benefits of modern technology. Simon Davies asserts that the 'technology is no more neutral than an atomic bomb' and calls for the revival of Luddism. The comparison, it is submitted, is wildly exaggerated. The benefits of information technology, properly controlled are immense. If history teaches us anything, it is that the technological genie cannot be put back into the bottle. Although one may not agree with all the points raised in this book, it is important that there is debate on the shape of the society to come. This book makes compelling reading for all with an interest in these important issues.