Privacy chief: we're all in UK.gov's pockets

How many points for Business Class democracy?

The surveillance state is sorting society into pockets of desirable and undesirable people and treating them accordingly, a major survey by the UK's privacy guardian, the Information Commissioner said today.

The democratic values of equality and freedom are threatened by the creeping advance of surveillance into all walks of life, according to A Report on the Surveillance Society, edited by two of the world's leading thinkers on the social consequences of surveillance, Kirstie Ball and David Murakami Wood.*

The report fends off any potential accusations of paranoia by first declaring that there is no "malign plot hatched by evil powers" to control the world. It then goes onto describe something that might merely be considered insidious.

"Power corrupts or at least skews the vision of those who wield it," it says, before going on to explain how the growing use of surveillance in all walks of life is putting unprecedented power into the hands of state and industry.

It warns how the information describing people's identities - likes and dislikes, status, movements, means and actions - that is being stored in so many public and private sector databases, is being merged to create a fixed record of their cultural capital, their value to the organisations that control the systems.

"This information is then sorted, sifted and categorized, and used as a basis for decisions which effect our life chances," it says.

That might be all very well with someone who the system deems desirably wealthy, healthy, well adjusted, intelligent, talented, ASBO-free -- the Blairite picture of normality. But the other sort of normal people, the human sort, are being sorted into less favourable categories by the system.

These might be crude immigration systems that give people with a pristine life history a fast track through customs, or consumer databases that give high earners preferential treatment in shops and hotels. Amazon, it says for example, charges different customers different prices.

"Call centres now rank order customer accounts according to their relative spend, and alter their service levels accordingly," it says.

The impending reprint of Michael Young's prescient dystopian satire of modern life, The Rise of the Meritocracy, couldn't have been timed better.

"Social sorting is endemic in the surveillance society," says the report, and, " Once classified, it is difficult to break out of the box.

It is the sort of categorization that in conventional human society is called social stereotyping, which can mean someone is treated differently according to their (apparent) identity. So women might be patronized in the workplace, or a man in a suit might get more deferential treatment from a police officer than lad with a hoody.

Yet people who change their identity realise that society is quick to adjust its treatment of them accordingly. Even then, it can be difficult to break out of the box and the consequences run deeper than mere treatment. Diane Halpern, a West Coast academic, proposes that as people's brain physiologies are altered by their life experiences, social stereotyping actually directs, and potentially restricts, people's psychological development. Database stereotyping gives people even less room for manoeuvre.

"Surveillance society poses ethical human rights dilemmas that transcend the realm of privacy," says the report.

But, "Given the power of large organisations with sophisticated surveillance capacities, however, it seems only fair that ordinary people should have a say," and those holding and using the data should be accountable to the people that it spooks.

It also describes how surveillance is changing the rules by which human society is structured, undermining the trust on which our social relationships are based, and fostering suspicion.

And no-one quite knows where it is all headed, because technology is moving faster than ever, faster than civil society has the means to absorb it, understand its implications, and humanize it.

One of the drivers of this trend, it reminds us, is the power of the defence industry, which is putting much of its resources into developing tools for civil surveillance. The latest developments are systems that determine people's behaviours, what they might do and arranges for them to be treated accordingly. Some, like the UK Home Secretary, John Reid, believe that this is vital for the survival of our economy, but dash the consequences for society.

Another driver is the desire of business and government for efficiency. "The intention of surveillance is often simply to manage efficient and swift flows of goods, people and information. However, what spells 'efficiency' for one person spells 'social control' for another," it says.

After an extensive description of the way in which surveillance is being used in all walks of modern life, it proposes, unsurprisingly, that there should be regulation dedicated to bringing these systems under democratic control, before they become the means for computers to control democracy. The current data protection rules, it is becoming clear, have been left behind as well.®

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