Privacy means the right to be left alone

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Imagine a world without privacy. Where you go, what you do there, and what you buy can all be constantly tracked via what you carry, wear, drive or spend. In this world your personal information can even be implanted somewhere about your person for “authorities” to read and interpret.

With hardly a public fanfare, this world is now being created using RFID technology.

RFID stands for “radio frequency identification” and works by “tagging” an object with a computer chip containing information and a unique number. RFID reader antennae then send electromagnetic pulses that cause any in-range RFID tags to respond by beaming back the information stored.

More RFID trials have been run in the UK than anywhere else in Europe and the main use – so far – is in supply chain management and monitoring customers’ choices and spending patterns. Unsurprisingly, the microscopic devices are proving popular with retailers. But they comprise just one of a number of privacy-threatening technologies.

The UK already has more CCTV cameras than any nation in the world, filming the average person 300 times each day. Updated, these cameras will read car number plates, recognise faces and then store our every movement in a database whether we commit an offence or not.

Satellite based “tag and beacon” road pricing technology will supplant rudimentary congestion charging systems so that our vehicles can be pinpointed even when we drive miles from the nearest CCTV camera.

Travel cards such as London’s RFID-based Oyster not only simplify ticketing but provide exact and timed records of our journeys.

The majority of us carry mobile phones that can be used to pinpoint our location, track us and listen to our conversations.

And satellites are photographing our homes to detect improvements that could push up our council taxes.

Internet service providers have been forced to install remote controlled black boxes that, when activated, pass our data to the security services. We in turn are legally obliged to surrender passwords and encryption keys when asked.

In 1997 there were 1,712 warrants allowing phone taps. By 2003 this had shot up to 4,827.

The UK currently has one of the world’s largest DNA databases where our genetic signatures are logged if we are arrested – even if no prosecution follows.

Health services are compiling centralised databases of our medical histories that disclose intimate particulars to those who want to monitor our lives.

Identity cards – essential, we’re told, to fight terrorism, fraud and organised crime – are being designed to hold more than 50 pieces of information about the bearer, including fingerprints, iris patterns and face recognition.

And the real threat to our civil liberties is that all the databases containing our personal details are intended to be linked so that the full stories of our lives can be recovered and reviewed remotely from a central point.

So how did we become lulled into accepting technologies that rob us of our privacy? Just as a stage magician deftly directs your attention toward one hand so that you don’t see what his other one is doing, we have been led to debate the right “balance” between liberty and security. The implication being that we cannot have more of one without having less of the other. With each loss of privacy we are told the information will be used only in extremis in the national interest.

In 1985, summing up the case against Clive Ponting for leaking to Tam Dalyell MP the secrets of the sinking of the Argentine warship Belgrano during the Falklands conflict, a judge said that the interests of the state were none other than the interests of the party in power at the time.

Luckily, said some – perversely, said others – Mr Ponting’s jury disagreed.

But for the magician in government, only a little sleight of hand is needed to confuse national and political interests.

It’s time we woke up to how far our civil rights are being eroded and started debating all this openly. In the words of Louis Brandeis: “Privacy is the right to be alone – the most comprehensive of rights, and the right most valued by civilised man.”

Ian Cook is a security evangelist at Pentest, a security company offering services in Europe and North America. ian.cook@pentest.co.uk

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