Tuesday, October 19, 2021
HomeCulture WarsDial 888 for the surveillance state

Dial 888 for the surveillance state

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THE recent reaction to the potentially preventable murder of Sarah Everard has opened yet more doors to state surveillance. Ms Everard was abducted from a main street in south London, raped and murdered by a serving Metropolitan Police officer, Wayne Couzens. He is now serving a full-life term in prison. 

After the crime, there were vigils, group protests and calls for curfews on men. Consider the way a few racist insults towards England footballers led to demands for the end of online anonymity. We see that topical events which generate strong emotions (fear, anger, disgust) open the door to the state (and its corporate partners) advancing data collection, surveillance and control. Think of how Covid-19 gave the state the opportunity to abolish liberty in the name of safety.    

A new service to track people via a mobile-phone app has been championed by the mass media. BT’s 888 service would monitor people moving between locations and provide a one-touch police alert. There are some uses to the service. It may help track an abducted or missing person. As for kidnap, however, surely any captor’s first action would be to separate a victim from her phone at the point of abduction.

What if a woman walking home bumps into a friend and goes back to her home for coffee without turning off the app? What happens if a phone’s battery depletes? Will an alert be issued if a phone is turned off? What if the police are summoned inadvertently, discrediting the service? It will take only a few reports of police breaking down innocent people’s doors or issuing amber alerts in error before the app’s drawbacks become apparent. (Remember the shambolic debacle of the NHS tracking app that was simultaneously intrusive and ineffective?) It is likely that the 888 service will set off so many false alarms – irritating users, information receivers and police – that it will be discontinued shortly after it is adopted. However, it will probably be substituted with a modified or replacement system.

The difficulty is that the state dearly wishes people would provide more tracking data; it is in its best interests to make a tracking system work. The proposed digital identity (combining health, tax, social security, bank account and store data) is a precursor to a social credit system, one that would be completed by present-time location tracking. The fact that the Home Office approves of the 888 service should fill no one with confidence. After all, the state is your enemy. Why provide your enemy with more power over you?

The 888 is a service that will creep beyond its original parameters. Why would it be restricted to women? Indeed, how could men be legally excluded from using it? Some children already have GPS trackers to allow parents to monitor their location. Dementia sufferers are tagged, as are the convicted when released under licence or those on bail. How long before the first case of 888 data being used for other purposes, such as detecting a breach of court-ordered exclusion zones or Covid self-isolation rules?

Which authorities would receive tracking data? Well, the police, obviously. And the security services (for terrorists). And the parole service (for early-release criminals). And the Home Office (for asylum seekers). And social services (for abusive partners). And the job centre (for training-course attendance). And truancy officers (for delinquent children). And health authorities (for the quarantined). There are legitimate reasons for all these bodies to have data on people’s whereabouts. It makes sense to have a single centralised system with certain services authorised to access data. 

All the Home Office would have to do is draft a law stating that for reasons of safety and security, all new mobile phones must have GPS tracking enabled and authorities should have access to that information. Does anyone, in the light of the near unanimous support of MPs for authoritarian Covid regulations, think that Parliament would hesitate to pass such an Act?

If such musings seem far-fetched, consider where we are today. Consider the fact that the police can gain a search warrant for Google’s tracking data to identify mobile devices near a crime. Everything mentioned above will have already have been considered and researched by civil servants and techies years ago. Phone companies and Big Tech already use (and misuse) tracking data but the adoption of an 888 app will massively increase surveillance and data mining. Just as with zero Covid, zero abduction is a chimera – an aim that is impossible, impractical and with massive potential for damage and abuse. 

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Alexander Adams
Alexander Adams is an artist, art critic and author. His book Iconoclasm, Identity Politics and the Erasure of History is published by Societas.

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