Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Too Much Information: The Age of the All-Knowing Database Presents a Challenge to Democracy, Writes Becky Hogge

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Too Much Information: The Age of the All-Knowing Database Presents a Challenge to Democracy, Writes Becky Hogge

Article excerpt

If you think that the worst thing the government can do with all the data it collects about you is lose it in the post, then you haven't been watching The Last Enemy. Set in the near future, this BBC series is now halfway through exploring Britain as a surveillance society.

In one thrilling scene at the end of the first episode, the lead character, a reclusive mathematician seconded to the government to trial a new super-database, uses a combination of CCTV footage, automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras and facial recognition software, presumably linked to a putative National Identity Register, to track in minute detail the movements and associates of a girl with whom he has fallen in love.

What is shocking is that, bar the National Identity Register, a flawed and intrusive scheme that Gordon Brown should find a way to drop quick-smart, the data-gathering operations used in this scene are already in place. What's more, the data-sharing that has its logical conclusion in the fictional super-database (named "TIA" for Total Information Awareness) is already happening.

The Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, signed a certificate last summer to exempt Transport for London and the Metropolitan Police from certain provisions of the Data Protection Act, so they could share data from TfL's congestion-charge cameras, allowing the Met to use the information when investigating threats to national security. The data--collected using ANPR cameras that encircle the capital--shows the movements of all motor vehicles in and out of the city centre. …

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