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Privacy TV

By Dave Birch posted Mar 7 2008 at 3:11 PM

[Dave Birch] I've been watching ever since the BBC launched it's new drama series about the surveillance state. It's called The Last Enemy, and I was quite looking forward to watching it, as were others, since it touches on a lot of the issues that I spend a lot of time thinking about. Given my conviction that sometime you need to turn to art to help you to understand change, I thought it might deliver some insight into the balance between privacy and security in the modern world. Actually, it's turned out to be a bit dull, and I've been a little disappointed.

It's just occurred to me why.

It's because the BBC, like the Government, is a vast hierarchical beauracracy that it is essentially backward-looking, group-thinking and inward-focused. Just as the government can only envisage things like ID cards in a kind of 1960s frame of reference, of centralised databases and giant computers, so the BBC can only construct a discussion around them in that same frame of reference, a cross between George Orwell and Groundhog Day, endlessly retreading the same tired version of the future.

Hence the event stream seems a bit ridiculous: why on earth would people be lurking around looking for anyone in a world where there appears to be camera in every room? In one episode there's a bit of road rage and one motorist shoots two others, but nothing happens. I guess the cameras are only looking out for dangerous double-parkers or congestion charge-evaders. As far as I can see, the scriptwriters are just producing a standard cowboys-and-indians story with ID technology as a plot backdrop, not even a maguffin to keep things moving (although I'm sure that, at some point, there will be a chase involving a CD containing important data that could just as easily be e-mailed). And as in all TV shows that involve computers, it was rife with stereotypes:

 

People type furiously on a keyboard to open up a new window - check
  People have multiple screens open with photos on, but never seem to pick a screen to put stuff onto - check
  Fonts are big enough to be seen from miles away - check
  Interface is in its own basement room - check.

[From Tech & Gadgets Editor's Blog]

And, of course, the computer spoke, which in "real life" would drive you mad. What was funniest of all was the central icon of the near-future state, the pillar of the technologically omnipotent surveillance state: the ID card that the characters had to use to get into buildings and so forth. It was a trivially-counterfeitable magnetic stripe card, circa 1971.

Talking about visions of privacy and security, I went along to an RSA seminar on privacy in an open world, which had Richard Thomas (the U.K.'s Information Commissioner), amongst others including Forum friend Ian Walden and Privacy International's Gus Hosein, talking about privacy from a non-technical point of view. It was mildly interesting -- I don't think Digital ID denizens would have learned anything new -- but as always at these events the purpose of going was to have a chat with everything in the (Vodafone sponsored, many thanks) drinks reception. Despite the general air of despair about privacy, there was one or two people (even Gus) who said that they had some optimism that things might change. You can judge for yourself, because I think an audio recording of the event will available for downloading from the RSA. I ended up reflecting, again, that techology is always portrayed as being the problem, rather than a potential solution.

These opinions are my own (I think) and presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]

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