Jamie Grace wrote this article.

What do you think of under-age drinking? What about social menacing or unavoidable rite-of-passage for teens? Are you concerned about illegal immigration or the threat of terrorism? Or is growing anti-social behaviour in your neighborhood more of an immediate concern?

The British government – and British businesspeople – are changing
the ways they monitor what the population, as citizens or consumers, do
and say, or buy. The United Kingdom is an astute, socially-aware place
to live – many British people are class-conscious and feel under
scrutiny by their peers and neighbours. We are comfortable with this.

Our academic community even researches class-endowed ideas such as
the class ‘flag’ that our surname might raise to others; let alone our
ethnicity, regional origin, accent, income, mode of dress, etc (see www.spatial-literacy.org.uk).

British people are also very aware of being under surveillance by
the State as well as their neighbours. We have numerous governmental
departments that seek to keep tabs on us for a variety of reasons, but
mostly, and ostensibly, the Big Three: taxation, national security and
crime prevention. We also have an official watchdog to monitor the
actions of all the other official watchdogs, the Information
Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

A quick visit to the ICO website (www.ico.gov.uk) will demonstrate
that there are a few concerns this super-guardian has over the growing
use of biometric data by agencies of the State, and the collection and
commercial use of our personal data generally.

The UK Office of Government Commerce is tasked with introducing the
National ID Card scheme – already international students residing to
study in the UK must carry a form of this compulsory identification
that uses sensitive biometric data to supposedly enhance security – and
accordingly, public peace of mind. Foreign travel for all UK citizens
will be similarly granted by new biometric passports.

The ICO, the government’s own agency, is not alone in dissenting
with regard to initiatives like these on such a monstrous scale.
Organisations such as Liberty (www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk) are
broadly allied with the ICO in an anti-policy stance. Proposed
legislative changes also present a statutory threat to the privacy of
UK citizens.

The Communications Data Bill – not yet law but not defeated in the
House of Commons either – is a New Labour proposal that would see the
compulsory tracking of every Internet and e-mail transaction a UK
citizen might engage in by their Internet Service Provider (ISP). Never
mind the fact that this information is readily shared between UK ISPs
and the police in most cases – and can always be obtained with a court
order in any event – on this one, UK policymakers have indulged in very
little joined-up thinking.

The front line in the contested ground between policymakers
primarily concerned with the Big Three, and libertarians concerned with
notions of human rights, is constantly shifting back and forth. The
European Court of Human Rights recently handed down a decision in the
case of S & Marper v United Kingdom that will see
hundreds of thousands of individual records removed from the UK
National DNA database that the police routinely use to ‘clear up’
crime. Individual records could previously languish there indefinitely;
posing a huge risk to privacy.

Liberty has stridently noted that the UK government, ministers and
policymakers have indulged in some amount of disinformation to ensure
the UK public develop mixed views with regard to the decision – pleased
their privacy is protected generally by the continental Court, but
skeptical of the need to protect the privacy of the once-accused and
formerly prosecuted.

But the Home Office has announced it will adopt European Union
policy on ‘remote searching,’ that is, hacking – to be used by the
police and state security forces – to monitor and investigate the
online activity, stored files and e-mail traffic of particular
individuals. This policy will bring about the aims of the
Communications Data Bill even if this legislation is defeated

How then can business, as opposed to government, better use ‘privacy
enhancing technologies’ (PET) for the benefit of consumers? If scale is
an issue – because of the greater risk of a compromise of privacy and
security – is smaller perhaps better? In both the UK and the USA,
business have taken huge blows in the form of negative PR when they
have lost their customers’ personal data or allowed their customers to
become the targets and victims of ID fraud.

But one franchise manager in the UK town of Chorley has been
innovative in his approach to the use of PET and identification of
customers buying alcohol on his premises. Chris Bury, a Bargain Booze
store manager, has been using a fingerprint scanner to build up a
database of local customers of the legal age to buy alcohol (18 in the

Customers presumably register on this small database because the
next time they go to the store and forget their driving license or
passport they don’t have to go away and fetch their ID – they just
submit to a quick scan. Mr Bury reportedly has around 400 people on his
database – which he has been running from August 2008.

Here in this example, consumers are voluntarily giving their
sensitive, biometric data to a local business person (who collects such
data on smaller scale and for specific purposes). Providing the
information is kept physically and electronically secure – small
databases such as this cannot pose serious risk to privacy or personal
security – containing as they do only small amounts of information
about a person, maintained at a local level.

So the individuals or smaller organisations that maintain control of
your sensitive personal data – manipulated for very specific purposes –
can take a pragmatic, paternalistic approach to your privacy and
information security – whereas the State will always be driven by the
higher ideals of the Big Three: taxation, national security and crime
prevention, and so will take bigger risks with your information
security and call for greater inroads into your personal privacy – and
other human rights.

Paternalism can be an important policymaking mindset, and can be
made viable by creating initiatives on the smallest of scales. In an
information society, we must all have regard to each other’s security
and privacy.

As Adam Smith wrote: “The laws of all civilized nations oblige
parents to maintain their children, and children to maintain their
parents, and impose upon men many other duties of beneficence.”


  1. Welcome to Urban Semiotic, Jamie, and thank you for the magnificent smash of a first article publication!
    I love your take on the UK — but I am confused as to what seems to be the lackadaisical acquiescence of “personal privacy” that many in the UK seem to abide.
    Are you watched from birth? Is it a question of morality: I’m doing nothing wrong, so watch me if you like!
    For some reason we in the USA seem to squirm a bit more against the government eyeball watching our every move.

  2. Brilliant first article, Jamie, thank you. Did you read about the band that made their rock video by playing in front of UK cameras and then requesting the footage – which is available by request – and then putting it together?

  3. On the point of the music group using CCTV footage to make a video – I advise my students to do the same with bank statements – a lot of UK banks will ask that you pay a small amount every month for a ‘plus’ bank account that entitles you to request as many printed bank statements as you like. Using data-protection legislation, UK citizens can retrieve information like this, often with no extra, or very minimal one-off, cost to themselves.
    To respond to David’s point about personal privacy – the law as it is developing in the UK is actually getting stronger with regard to personal privacy in the sense of a ‘private and family life’. Decisions such as Mosley, Douglas and Campbell show that there is a growing doctrine of privacy in the common law. The real issues are not with commercial intrusion into, or exposure of, our private lives – but with interventions by the UK government into our lives using ‘e-governance’ technologies. The UK population, I think, is merely badly informed by the UK government about the potential riskes to their identity form such e-governance interventions. I would contest the idea that the UK population is acquiescent.

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