Sunday, 10 November 2013


The recent appearance of the heads of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ on television has centred everyone’s attention on the scope and the dangers of State surveillance, but what commentators have forgotten is that surveillance conducted by those not belonging to the Secret Service community is much more ubiquitous and, in many ways, much more disturbing.
And the reason for this is simple: we are willing participants in this Surrogate Surveillance.
Take, for instance, the loyalty card phenomenon. At first glance the reason why Tesco and all the other big stores provide loyalty cards is simply to reward those who shop regularly at their stores and by doing so to encourage them to keep coming back. But there is another reason why these stores are so keen on promoting their loyalty cards: the vast quantities of information they acquire about their customers enables them to profile them. A shopping cart reveals a great deal of information about you: whether you have children or live alone; whether you drink (and how much); whether you have a pet; how clean you are; whether you are environmentally conscious; and (from the papers you buy) what your political views are likely to be. All these data are stored (for how long?), analysed and used to develop a portrait of you useful in tailoring adverts directed at you. Bespoke promotion … you can see it on the side of your Facebook page.
Not that the stores are stopping there. The news that Tesco will be installing face-recognition equipment in its petrol stations ( is just the next step: Tesco aims to put faces to data. I’m guessing that soon we’ll be in a ‘Minority Report’ type world where adverts are tailor-made for each potential customer passing them by. Of course, it will also enable Tesco to refuse entry to known shop-lifters and serial-complainers but that’s by-the-by (unless you happen to have the misfortune to look like a shop-lifter!).
What is important about this development is the vast amount of data that Tesco have to store and process in order to make their face-recognition initiative work. This is just a STORE when all said and done, not GCHQ or the NSA.
Which brings me back to my central point. Around the country (and on-line, Amazon must be awash with data) there are hundreds of stores doing pretty much the same thing as Tesco and warehousing copious amounts of data. And these databases are supplemented by those holding the information hoovered up by official surveillance devices operated by the police and local authorities, and the information held by the Inland Revenue, local GPs, the rating authorities, the police, by the Congestion Charging centre in London, by the DVLA in Swansea and, of course, by the banks. Moreover if Tesco is using facial recognition you can bet your bottom dollar that the police and GCHQ are way ahead of them. Even the Inland Revenue is using Google Earth (
This is what I call Surrogate Surveillance.
The Snowden brouhaha focussed attention on how the internet and cell phone service providers co-operated (or didn’t co-operate, depending on who you believe) with the GCHQ/NSA to facilitate their tapping into our e-communications but what was forgotten was that there is this mass of Surrogate Surveillance data collected quite openly that could provide very interesting information about us. Nobody seems interested in it.
Nobody, I suspect, apart from GCHQ.
Now with all this data lying around neatly warehoused I would have thought it beyond belief that GCHQ wouldn’t be accessing it. After all it has been acquired quite legally (and often with the surveillee’s co-operation) so no one can criticise GCHQ for using it. Now I’ve never made a bomb but I suspect that the ingredients are pretty standard and need to be bought by any would-be bomber. Analysing data held in a store’s databases would reveal who was buying this stuff (presumably terrorists have credit cards) and hence who was worth MI5 taking a closer interest in.
Forget Tempora and worry about Surrogate Surveillance ...

No comments:

Post a Comment