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Surveillance, Privacy and Liberty

Britain has been known for some time to be decidedly interested in surveillance, in the name of security. It’s an oft-quoted comment that Britain is a ‘surveillance society’. That said, in part because of technology, and the ‘war on terrorism’, there seems to have been a noticeable shift in the amount of surveillance, and how it is being used – both by the government and private organisations.

Clearly there is some good to come of the 4.2 million CCTV cameras in Britain – I was astounded at the speed which the London bombers of July 2005 were traced. It wasn’t long after the event that the bombers had been traced back across London, to the place they had boarded a train, no doubt speeding the investigation.

Some people clearly have concerns about how the technology is used, however.

More than just the increasing use of cameras for passive monitoring, there are much more active techniques for observing people and taking action. Under a new police initiative, cameras will use automatic numberplate recognition to check for ‘vehicles of interest’, following which motorists will have their fingerprints checked against the Police National Computer. The stated aim is to ensure identies can easily be verified at the roadside, to avoid people giving false details. Fingerprints are stored in this computer system when people are charged with a crime – though clearly it would be much easier if everyone’s details were stored, rather than existing criminals. The police also suggest the technology could be extended for real-time searching of the “Facial Images National Database”.

One presumes these fingerprints might come from the biometrics gathered for identity cards, our nice, ‘secure‘ e-passports or the IRIS airport scanning system.

It seems to be a significant shift that’s occurred recently where it’s freely admitted by many of the involved organisations that this sort of data will be gathered on everyone, rather than those guilty of a crime. When automatic facial or numberplate recognition, or even behaviour patterns, are used to monitor potential criminals rather than those guilty of something, even those who suggest ‘if you’re not guilty you’ve nothing to hide‘ might start to worry.

As evidence that there is increasing acceptance of surveillance, I noticed barely a raised eyebrow when mentioning the Pay-as-you-Drive car insurance promotion by Norwich Union to people, wherein you are given a GPS tracking device and billed according to your driving pattern and risk profile. Given they know where you’re going and how fast you’re moving – might they report to anyone (or just adjust your premiums) if you’re speeding?

Doing the right thing

So, I’ve made it to a blog posting at last.

Of late, I’ve had a growing feeling of wanting to do ‘good’ things. Having devoted over five years of working hard at jobs which overwhelmingly corporate, I’ve managed to do pretty well for myself. I’ve progressed pretty well in my career, towards achieving some personal goals, and financially too.

I took a new job in the summer, and whilst still being with an investment bank, I have been less busy and less stressed, giving me time to put more thought and effort into those ‘good things’. The first thing I did was to sign up to give some money each month to charity. By doing this through the Give As You Earn scheme (via my salary), firstly it goes before it’s even arrived making it less painful, but also it’s tax efficient. I have a percentage of my salary in my head that I plan to give, which will obviously increase as time goes on. I have an account with the Charities Aid Foundation. The money I give each month gets put into this account, and I set up standing orders to leave this account to my nominated charities… Or so goes the theory.

I got as far as setting up the account, and then stumbled. Who should I give money to? What’s the most effective way to donate? Comic Relief has a model of giving money at local, national and global levels. I’d quite like to follow this – but it’s difficult to know who to choose.

I believe strongly in freedom and fairness, and in lifting third world countries from poverty. But all my grandparents died of cancer. There are some charities which I almost want to avoid they feel almost a stereotypical cliche. I’m an athiest too, and would want to avoid charities that push a particular religion on people as part of their receiving aid. Finally there are hundreds of local charities, but I’d have no idea how to be sure I was picking the right one.

In researching where to give my money, it’s opened my eyes to just how many bad things there are going on in the world. It’s almost paralysing – so much to do, and my proverbial drop in the ocean to hand out. I thought I was doing well, then I read an article (unfortunately I’ve lost the link) that suggested perhaps giving to charity was a bad idea, and that I should spend my money ensuring that I bought green energy and sourced my food organically and from local producers. This would inevitably cost more, but would be good for the environment, not to mention the local producers and my health. Only then should I consider charity with whatever’s left.

I have yet to decide where the money goes. My best guess so far is to choose five or six of the ‘big names’, and keep researching for organisations that deal with issues that I feel most passionate about, and refine the list as time goes on. I can heartily recommend Intelligent Giving, which is a good source of that research. If you have any suggestions, let me know.