The walk from my house to the tube station has changed very little in 30 years. The houses and their front gardens look more or less the same, although at least two have been massively remodeled on the inside. More change is visible around the tube station, where shops have changed hands as their owners retired. The old fruit and vegetable shop now sells wine; the weird old shop that sold crystals and carved stones is now a chain drug store. One of the hardware stores is a (very good) restaurant and the other was subsumed into the locally-owned health food store. And so on.
In the tube station itself, the open platforms have been enclosed with ticket barriers and the second generation of machines has closed down the ticket office. It’s imaginable that had the ID card proposed in the early 2000s made it through to adoption the experience of buying a ticket and getting on the tube could be quite different. Perhaps instead of an Oyster card or credit card tap, we’d be tapping in and out using a plastic ID smart card that would both ensure that only I could use my free tube pass and ensure that all local travel could be tracked and tied to you. For our safety, of course – as we would doubtless be reminded via repetitive public announcements like the propaganda we hear every day about the watching eye of CCTV.
Of course, tracking still goes on via Oyster cards, credit cards, and, now, wifi, although I do believe Transport for London when it says its goal is to better understand traffic flows through stations in order to improve service. However, what new, more intrusive functions TfL may choose – or be forced – to add later will likely be invisible to us until an expert outsider closely studies the system.
In his recently published memoir, the veteran campaigner and Privacy International founder Simon Davies tells the stories of the ID cards he helped to kill: in Australia, in New Zealand, in Thailand, and, of course, in the UK. What strikes me now, though, is that what seemed like a win nine years ago, when the incoming Conservative-Liberal Democrat alliance killed the ID card, is gradually losing its force. (This is very similar to the early 1990s First Crypto Wars “win” against key escrow; the people who wanted it have simply found ways to bypass public and expert objections.)
As we wrote at the time, the ID card itself was always a brightly colored decoy. To be sure, those pushing the ID card played on it and British wartime associations to swear blind that no one would ever be required to carry the ID card and forced to produce it. This was an important gambit because to much of the population at the time being forced to carry and show ID was the end of the freedoms two world wars were fought to protect. But it was always obvious to those who were watching technological development that what mattered was the database because identity checks would be carried out online, on the spot, via wireless connections and handheld computers. All that was needed was a way of capturing a biometric that could be sent into the cloud to be checked. Facial recognition fits perfectly into that gap: no one has to ask you for papers – or a fingerprint, iris scan, or DNA sample. So even without the ID card we *are* now moving stealthily into the exact situation that would have prevailed if we had. Increasing numbers of police departments – South Wales, London, LA, India, and, notoriously, China – as Big Brother Watch has been documenting for the UK. There are many more remotely observable behaviors to be pressed into service, enhanced by AI, as the ACLU’s Jay Stanley warns.
The threat now of these systems is that they are wildly inaccurate and discriminatory. The future threat of these systems is that they will become accurate and discriminatory, allowing much more precise targeting that may even come to seem reasonable *because* it only affects the bad people.
This train of thought occurred to me because this week Statewatch released a leaked documentindicating that most of the EU would like to expand airline-style passenger data collection to trains and even roads. As Daniel Boffay explains at the Guardian(and as Edward Hasbrouck has long documented), the passenger name records (PNRs) airlines create for every journey include as many as 42 pieces of information: name, address, payment card details, itinerary, fellow travelers… This is information that gets mined in order to decide whether you’re allowed to fly. So what this document suggests is that many EU countries would like to turn *all* international travel into a permission-based system.
What is astonishing about all of this is the timing. One of the key privacy-related objections to building mass surveillance systems is that you do not know who may be in a position to operate them in future or what their motivations will be. So at the very moment that many democratic countries are fretting about the rise of populism and the spread of extremism, those same democratic countries are proposing to put in place a system that extremists who get into power can operate anti-democratic ways. How can they possibly not see this as a serious systemic risk?
Illustrations: The light of the oncoming train (via Andrew Gray at Wikimedia).
Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard – or follow on Twitter.