A few words on privilege…

I’m a hugely privileged person. Almost all the advantages that can be bestowed upon someone in our society have been bestowed upon me. I was brought up in a family for which money wasn’t really an issue. I lived in a nice place – in leafy, privileged Cambridge – and went to very good schools. State schools, as it happens, but in Cambridge the state schools are remarkably good, and Hills Road Sixth Form College, where I did my A Levels, can compete at an academic level with pretty much all the ‘top’ public schools in the country. I went to Cambridge University. I’m male. I’m white. I’m straight. I’ve always been able to find jobs. I’m married, have a child, have a great job, own a nice home, I’m able-bodied, not suffering from mental health problems and reasonably healthy. I tick almost all the right boxes – and have all the advantages.

Many more advantages, indeed, than some people seem to want to acknowledge. I grew up in a remarkable family – one of the reasons I felt compelled to write this piece is that tomorrow is the memorial for my father, Martin Bernal, who was himself a quite remarkable man – academic, author, folk singer, campaigner etc.. He died in the summer, and over the last few months I’ve been thinking a lot about what I got from having him as a father – and indeed from having so many interesting people around me so much of my life. It was and is an immense privilege. I grew up in a household where we were expected to read, to learn, to question. We were listened to – well, most of the time – and were given a huge amount of freedom, and included in fascinating conversations. I was instilled with confidence and with a sense that pretty much anything was possible.

These kinds of things matter – they add a huge, extra layer of advantage to the more tangible ones that wealth so directly provides. They open doors for you – doors that are generally already pretty much ajar to the privileged but shut, locked and bolted against anyone else. They make it far, far easier to take advantage of opportunities – and when you add it to the safety nets that wealth and connections provide they make life much, much easier.

And yet, somehow, a great many people who are privileged seem to forget this – indeed, they seem to think exactly the opposite. They convince themselves that they have made successes of their lives from raw talent and intelligence and that everyone else who hasn’t succeeded must have failed either because they’re too stupid – as the recent speech of Boris Johnson seems to suggest – or too lazy (as the whole ‘strivers vs scroungers’ agenda supposes) or because they’ve made terrible decisions, can’t budget and so forth.

I understand some of where they’re coming from. There’s no doubt in my mind that intelligence plays a part in all this – but the part it plays is vastly overstated, and what exactly ‘intelligence’ means is much harder to describe or measure than people seem to think. I know I’m intelligent by the kind of standards that Boris uses – I have a degree in mathematics and a PhD in law – but I also know that this ‘intelligence’ hasn’t been the most important thing in the way that opportunities have come up for me. I know for example that having the words ‘Cambridge University’ on my CV make people more willing to read further. I know that my family name has made some people in academia more interested in what I do. More than anything else, though, I know that society is ‘designed’ to let ‘people like me’ succeed.

Three shocks…

Three events in my twenties put a lot of this into context for me, and have changed the way I’ve looked at things. The first was when I was an accountant, working for one of the biggest accountancy firms in the City of London, in the late 80s. The height of Thatcherism, when greed was certainly seen as good. We’d had a good ‘busy season’, but after a merger of firms I found myself denied a promotion – as did everyone else in my cohort, or so we were told. When I found out that this wasn’t true, and that one person (who happened to have very good connections) had been given this promotion, I was outraged, and started digging around to find out what was going on. I asked all my contemporaries what had happened to them – had they been promoted, what ‘rating’ had they got, how much were they paid and so on. I soon found something much more outrageous than my petty jealousy about having been denied a promotion: every single woman was paid less than every single man. To put it another way, the best paid woman was on a lower salary than the worst paid man. Now this wasn’t anything to do with merit – I’d worked with most of the people, and I knew very well that however you decided to measure things this could not possibly be right. What made it even worse was that when I confronted the partner (male, public school and Oxbridge) about it, he said ‘why do you care, you’re a man’ or words to that effect. That this made me even angrier – and meant my leaving the firm was inevitable – seemed to be close to incomprehensible to him.

The second was in Burma – I was visiting the country in 1991, soon after leaving my accountancy job, at a time when the government was at its most oppressive and repressive. I had got in on a semi-diplomatic visa (through connections(!)) and was able to visit much more of the country than the usual tourist packages – travelling up to Mandalay and being shown around the place by a group of young Burmese people, introduced to me through my connections. They’d never met me, but I had never encountered such welcoming, interested, open and even happy people in my life. I had three or four days with them and it changed my outlook on life forever. I had been feeling rather sorry for myself and depressed – but when I looked at these people, living under one of the most repressive governments on the planet, with little opportunity for any of the things that we take for granted, and found that they were able to be so open and welcoming I thought I was being ridiculous. If they can find a way to be happy and interested, how can I possibly be so selfish and self-indulgent myself? When I found out after I returned to the UK that pretty much everyone seen talking to me in Burma – and that would have been most of them, since Burmese military intelligence had spies everywhere – was taken in for questioning after the event, my respect for them grew even more.

The third was a year or two later, when I was helping out with a ‘peace conference’ for children, in Lillehammer in Norway. We had kids from many, many countries, each with an adult accompanying them. One afternoon, our hosts, Redd Barna Norway (their version of Save the Children) arranged a session for the adult chaperones from the African countries. There were about 30 of them, from memory, from all over Africa. The question the Norwegians asked was ‘how can we help you?’ It was all very well-meaning, but when I saw the faces of the audience, I was surprised – and when I heard the answers they gave even more so. It wasn’t ‘give us more aid’ or ‘send us more machinery’ or ‘give us training in medicine’ or anything like that. It was, instead, simple and unequivocal: leave us alone. We don’t want your aid – and we don’t want your multinationals taking over our country, your arms companies selling weapons to our governments and the various opposition groups. Leave us alone. The hosts were shocked – but every single one of the representatives said the same. I’m not suggesting they were ‘right’, or that this was in any way a representative sample, but the event still shocked me. Our patronising paternalism was not what was wanted – and we had to think all over again.

What does this mean?

When I read about Boris’s speech, and when I think about all the patronising, elitist, offensive stuff that this government and pretty much every government I can remember have said, it makes me angry. Things like accusing poor people of not knowing how to budget, how to cook, how to feed their kids, how to make good decisions, or of being lazy, stupid etc. Suggestions from ministers that they could easily live on the amounts people get in benefits. Suggestions that people don’t try hard enough to get jobs. Suggestions that they don’t work hard enough. They all make me angry – and they make it clear to me that most of those speaking don’t know how privileged they are – and what the consequences of that privilege are.

For me, there are a few things that I try to remember. The first is the most obvious – that I’m deeply privileged and deeply lucky. The second is that I still don’t know quite how privileged and lucky I am – because so much of the privilege is hidden and built into the system, so much that those who are privileged can’t see it. Until I asked, I never realised that all the women were being paid less than all the men. Until I went to Burma and met those Burmese people I didn’t realise how it was possible not to feel sorry for yourself for the smallest thing. Until I listened to the African people at the conference, I didn’t realise quite how many assumptions I was making about how to solve the world’s problems.

That, in the end, is the most important thing. Whoever you are, however intelligent and enlightened you are, you don’t know what life is like for other people. You don’t know how things are for them, how hard it is for them. I don’t know what it is like to be really poor, for example. I’ve been poor – but I’ve been poor and still known I have family that would support me in the end, that I have the kind of education and experience that can help me out, that I’m healthy and so forth. Men don’t know what it’s like to be women. Straight men don’t know what it’s like to be gay in the society we have today. Able-bodied people don’t know what it’s like to have a disability. White people don’t know what it is like to be black. Wealthy people don’t know what it’s like to be poor.

There’s an old saying: ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. There’s a degree to which it’s true, and it certainly seems that the current lot of powerful people are thoroughly irresponsible. I’d like to add another – though it’s deeply wishful thinking. With great privilege should come great humility. Those of us who are privileged – like me, and like Boris – should be able to find that humility. To know that we really don’t know what it’s like to live without our privilege. We can try to imagine – but we’ll never really succeed. And we should know that we’ll never really succeed – and be far, far more willing to listen properly to those who do know it. Most of all, though, we should know when not to talk as though we had all the answers. We should know when to shut up.

Clare’s Law: a simple solution, or more confusion?

The news this morning that ‘Clare’s Law’, by which according to the BBC ‘enables women to check the police record of a new boyfriend’ will be expanded to cover the whole of England and Wales is one that fills me with unease. On the surface it seems to offer a simple tool in the fight against what is a truly horrendous problem – but I find myself wondering whether the process and the implications of this law have been properly thought through.

I look forward very much to seeing the results of the pilot schemes that have been operating since September 2012 – and in particular how the ‘success’ of the scheme is being measured. Did they measure how many reports were requested? Did they ask how many relationships were either not entered into or ended by the woman who discovered information? Did they attempt to measure an impact on domestic violence or other related offences? If so, it would be very interesting to know how – and I hope they make the information public.

Practical questions – and potential misuses

One question that immediately entered my mind when I heard about this scheme is how it actually works in practice. At what stage would a woman be able to ask for this information – and what if any evidence would she have to provide in order to get the information. Would it be when she had had a single ‘date’? Or even before that? How could or can you prove that you have a relationship with someone? If you need proof, then that might make things very difficult – sneaking around to gather information about your ‘boyfriend’ might even put you in more danger. If you don’t need proof, then that leaves the system ripe for abuse – for example by unscrupulous journalists trying to dig up dirt on someone they’re planning a story about.

That brings up one fairly fundamental point: do we consider these kinds of records as in any sense private or confidential. Do we want them to be ‘public property’ – because if we do, we need to be very clear about that, because there are implications, some of which are very serious. It makes the idea of rehabilitation much harder, let alone redemption. It has an impact on the potential fairness of trials – there’s a reason that previous convictions are not usually disclosed in a trial until after guilt or innocence is determined.

The risks of this kind of a system

One scenario keeps running through my mind. Imagine a woman has got a new boyfriend, and she’s not quite sure about him. Something makes her nervous and unsure – so she takes advantage of Clare’s Law and checks out his criminal record. When it comes back ‘clean’, she’s reassured and puts her worries to one side, and enters the relationship. The trouble is, the boyfriend is violent, and the woman finds herself becoming a victim of domestic violence. Rather than using other methods, or trusting to her instincts, she trusts the ‘clean’ criminal record – and suffers directly as a result.

Would this be an unusual scenario? Hardly, because by most accounts the vast majority of domestic violence and spousal abuse remains unreported. It seems highly likely that the majority of violent men don’t have criminal records. Clare’s Law, even if it’s used by women, is unlikely to really work – and may indeed, if this kind of  scenario is played out, end up putting women into more danger.

There’s another side to this – it may even be that a side effect of Clare’s Law is to perpetuate another damaging myth: that the only violent men are those we characterise as ‘criminal’. That ‘normal’, ‘respectable’ men aren’t capable or likely to commit violence. That’s simply not true – some of the most outwardly respectable men, without apparent blemishes on their character, let alone criminal records, commit hideous acts of violence to their partners.

Normalisation of checks – and the undermining of privacy

What’s more, this system adds to a building momentum against privacy – and in favour of checking everything and assuming that those checks will solve the problems. It’s that kind of approach that underpins the support for large-scale surveillance, and the building of the database state – even without proof that it actually helps, and indeed the distinct possibility that it will do exactly the opposite. If the solution to any problem is to go and check the records, the implication is that we need more records, more information – and hence more surveillance and less privacy. If we imply that before embarking on any relationship, anyone should do a complete background check on the person that they’re considering a relationship with, we make such background checks the norm. That may be OK – but it would be a big step to make, a step towards a society which relies on records and tests more than on humanity.

‘Simple solutions’ – and bureaucratic idealism

This leads on to another closely connected issue – and a pattern that this kind of ‘solution’ seems to fit into. We seem to look for ‘simple’ and surface level solutions to problems that are complex, deep-rooted and societal. The problem of domestic violence is a huge one, and one that we need to address very seriously at every level – and not just look for good headlines in the Daily Mail. It is not a problem easily amenable to simple solutions. As tweeter Guy Herbert put it this morning, it ‘ignores the whole psychology of abusive relationships in favour of bureaucratic idealism’. It may work in theory – but are the women in this kind of position likely to avail themselves of this kind of a service? Even if they do, how will they react to the information that’s provided?

I look forward to seeing the evaluation of the pilot schemes – because if this really does work, if it really is a useful tool, then it should be welcomed – and some people I deeply respect have told me that they know a number of people who would have been helped very directly by the existence of the law.

If, on the other hand, it is merely a distraction to get good headlines and distract from the real, crucial underlying issues, then the reaction should be very different. If at the same time as bringing in a law we are reducing funding for the crucial services to help victims of this kind of abuse and violence, then we should be shouting this to the rooftops. We need more information, more education – particularly of boys, and particularly about relationships – and more enforcement of existing laws.

Right now, I’m not quite sure which way this goes – but at first glance this looks more like headline-grabbing than something that can really help.

UPDATE V2! Some of the evidence has now been published. It’s here, but it only covered the new ‘Domestic Violence Protection Orders’, used as a civil law response to incidents of domestic violence, not as ‘check-ups’ of potential new boyfriends. I’ve tried to find evidence of the actual pilots of Clare’s Law, but so far all the Home Office seems to have posted is a press release.

Martin Bernal Memorial, Cambridge


A celebration of the life of my father, Martin Bernal, former Fellow of King’s College Cambridge and Professor Emeritus, Cornell University, will be held on Friday, 29 November 2013.

The celebration will be at King’s Hall, King’s College Cambridge, from 2.30-5.15 pm, including a reception.

Anyone who knew Martin or his work is welcome to come. If you need any more information, please let me know by email, at paul.bernal@uea.ac.uk

Martin died on the 9th June 2013 – his Guardian obituary can be found here.

Protest and survive?

Million mask march

The latest in a long line of assaults on our right to protest seems to be on its way with the planned replacement of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) with ‘Ipnas': Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance. Former DPP Lord Macdonald QC described the new powers as amounting to ‘gross state interference’ with basic freedoms – and it’s hard to argue with him, given the almost breathtaking scope of the powers. As described in the Telegraph, ‘the new system will allow courts to impose sweeping curbs on people’s liberty if they think they are “capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person”. They will be able to impose them if they think it is “just and convenient” to do so.’

One of the most important areas that the powers will have an impact on is the right to protest. It is a right that seems to be very much misunderstood and underrated in the current era – and a right that has been under attack in a wide variety of ways. It is also, however, a right that is of crucial importance, and one that needs defending. In the current political climate, where many people feel that conventional political paths are not functioning, where the current crop of politicians aren’t representing them, protest is one of the few ways that they can express themselves, and can get their messages across. Protest matters.

Surveillance and protest

There’s been a lot of talk about surveillance recently – and a lot of political attention on it – but much of it, to a great extent at least, has missed the point that one of the main functions of surveillance, in practice, is to monitor and control the dissent and protest. Indeed, it’s arguable that this may be the main purpose for much of the surveillance – particularly insofar as that surveillance covers conventional email, web-browsing, social networks and so forth. Whilst the terrorists, paedophiles and others who are ostensibly the primary targets are highly unlikely to use those more ‘normal’ parts of the net, and are highly likely to use encryption, anonymisation or other evasive techniques, the ordinary people, the organisers and the protesters, are the opposite. They use ordinary emails to organise their meetings, Facebook to coordinate them, and twitter to publicise them. Surveillance, therefore, though it finds catching terrorists and paedophiles as difficult as finding needles in haystacks, finds protests and protesters without much difficulty.

That’s why authoritarian regimes like to monitor the net so much – the late and unlamented Tunisian government, for example, hacked into Facebook’s login page so that they could intercept people’s usernames and passwords, so they could check where people were meeting, who they were talking to and so forth. It’s also one of the key reasons why the UK the government is so keen on surveillance. The summer headline in the BBC “Whitehall chiefs scan Twitter to head off badger protests” made the point very clearly. It’s not just to find out where protests might happen – it’s to head them off. And, indeed, by publicising the fact to try to persuade people not to protest in the first place. Don’t even think about it – we’re watching you, and we’ll stop you even if you try.

Combine the ability to find and monitor protests with the new and wide-ranging powers included with the Ipnas and you’ve got a near perfect tool to deal with protest. Indeed, surveillance of social media could even provide sufficient evidence to suggest that an individual is “capable of causing nuisance or annoyance” – and hence to slap them with an Ipna. Protests could be – and quite probably will be – stopped before they’ve even begun.

Protest and the media

It may be, however, that the perfection of this anti-protest double-whammy has not been noticed – because right now it feels as though the British ‘establishment’ does not really understand the importance of protest, or even that we really have a right to protest, or a need to protest. For many within that establishment, protest seems to be largely irrelevant, perhaps something out of the past – some people may recognise the title of this piece as coming from the anti-nuclear movement of the 80s, for example, and see protest as being something of a similar age.

The BBC, for example, did not even deign to cover the Million Mask March this week – not, I suspect, out of any conspiracy, but because they simply didn’t think it was important enough to be worth covering. Protest is not seen as important – because they don’t understand the role of protest. The BBC, I also suspect, thinks along very conventional lines: freedom of expression is, to many of them, synonymous with freedom of the press. To the BBC, that freedom is in the hands of journalists – and they’re quite wrong: protest is a fundamental part of freedom of expression. Where the media is constricted and constrained, as our media is – both through the law and through pressure-driven self-restraint, protest can become the most important part of freedom of expression of all.

The power of protest – and the need for protest

This is what Russell Brand realises – and the point that it seemed to me most of those criticising Russell Brand missed. They focussed almost entirely on Brand’s suggestion that voting was irrelevant – because to them, voting was all that there was. If you don’t vote, according to that logic, you can’t do anything to bring about change. They’re wrong – because there are many, many things that form part of a properly democratic system. Voting is just part of it – and don’t get me wrong, I have always voted and almost certainly always will – but there is a great deal more to it. And, again as Brand realised, when political institutions are failing you, you have to look for other means. Those means will almost certainly include protests.

That’s one of the reasons a clamp-down on protests is one of the first steps of an authoritarian regime that feels itself to be in trouble – or of a supposedly democratic regime that doesn’t really trust its people. Right now, that feels to be the way that our government looks at things. It doesn’t trust the people – so it wants to restrict people’s freedom to make their feelings known. It wants to control their protests – and we should not let them. If we are to survive as a democracy, we need that right to protest. We will probably have to fight for it, and fight very hard.

Surveillance: Needles in Haystacks…


I watched and listened to the ‘open’ evidence session of the Intelligence and Security Committee (‘ISC’) yesterday with a sense of sadness more than anything else. It was of course entirely predictable that the session would primarily be about putting as positive as possible a spin on the surveillance activities of the intelligence services but even so I found myself disappointed. The ISC is as close as we currently get to something that scrutinises the activities of the intelligence services – but on the basis of what we saw yesterday they are neither capable of such scrutiny nor to they have the desire to provide it. ‘Supine’ was the word that sprang immediately to mind.

Malcolm Rifkind, chairing the committee, seemed determined that the only result of the session would be vindication of the intelligence services – and demonstrated only that he does not understand why people are concerned, and why they are right to be concerned. The rest of the committee, all of whom have effectively been personally selected by the Prime Minister, were little better – and some were even worse. The way that Hazel Blears in particular practically purred her appreciation of the wonderful job being done by the heads of GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 was deeply depressing to anyone who hoped that this would be the beginning of a new era of openness by the intelligence community. Instead, it seemed that they were determined to continue to misinform and mislead the public.

It’s the metadata, stupid…

A couple of things stood out. One was that, yet again, that old chestnut ‘we’re not reading your emails or listening to your phone calls’ was wheeled out by the spy chiefs – and no-one on the committee picked them up on it.  No-one who understands anything about internet surveillance has an image of old-style spies sitting in darkened rooms with headphones on listening to our every word. It’s not the ‘content’ of the phone calls or the emails that matters so much – it’s the metadata, the information that surrounds the calls, the emails, the web-browsing that really counts. That meta data gives different information about the subject than the contents – but in many ways much better information, more analysable information, more nuanced information. It is much more useful for profiling, for predicting activities, for tracking and so forth. The intelligence chiefs know that very well – and yet they continue to bring out the ‘not listening to your phone calls or reading your emails’ line again and again. The committee ought to know this too – and ought to have called the intelligence chiefs out on it. They didn’t – whether because they don’t understand or because they don’t want to rock the boat it’s hard to tell. Perhaps both.

Surveillance happens at the data gathering stage

The other key aspect of the surveillance that wasn’t touched upon is when the surveillance happens – at the gathering stage, or at the accessing stage. Again, I’m not sure that the committee understood the importance of this distinction, but it’s an absolutely crucial one. The current system assumes that gathering data on all of us is absolutely fine – indeed, that’s the basic premise of the surveillance systems they appear to use, and was the essence of the Communications Data Bill that was defeated last year. Hoover up as much data as possible, then put the checks and balances, the controls, at the access stage. That, however, is a wholly flawed approach if privacy is to be taken at all seriously. It leaves the systems and the data open to abuse, to function creep, to hacking, to human error – and indeed to leaks like the one performed by Edward Snowden that the spy chiefs deplored so vehemently.

The European Court of Human Rights recognised this – in the notable case S and Marper v. the United Kingdom, they concluded that “the mere retention and storing of personal data by public authorities, however obtained, are to be regarded as having direct impact on the private-life interest of an individual concerned, irrespective of whether subsequent use is made of the data.” They are right – and if the neither the ISC nor the spy chiefs know or understand this that is deeply disappointing. If they know it, and don’t see how it applies to their surveillance activities that is even more disappointing. If they do see how it applies, and fail to mention it, that’s still worse.

Needles in Haystacks

The ‘needles in haystacks’ analogy was made a number of times during the session, and it is indeed apposite – but to me it has very different implications to those drawn by the spy chiefs. They don’t seem to understand some key aspects of the old proverb. For a start, needles aren’t generally found in haystacks – and that the point of the proverb is that trying to find a needle in a haystack is a thankless task, and one doomed to failure. More importantly, however, they don’t seem to understand that their approach is what builds the haystack in the first place! It’s the universal rather than targeted surveillance model that generates that huge haystack.

For me, that’s the real point of the proverb – and it applies directly here. If you set yourself a thankless, impossible task, the question you should be asking is whether there might be another way, a better way, to solve the problem. Perhaps you can get another needle from somewhere else. Perhaps you can use another tool instead of the needle. Perhaps the task isn’t worth doing anyway. Perhaps counter-terrorism can be done in cleverer, subtler, less privacy invasive ways.

That question – whether there is an alternative – didn’t seem to enter the minds of any of the members of the ISC yesterday. Whether it has entered the minds of the spy chiefs is another matter – if it has, they certainly didn’t want to mention it. Indeed, finding any kind of suggestion of an alternative to the current approach in yesterday’s open session was as hard as finding a needle in a haystack….

Minority Report on the Tesco Forecourt?

A story came out yesterday that sent a few chills down privacy advocates’ spines. As reported in the Telegraph

“The ‘OptimEyes’ system will be rolled out into 450 Tesco petrol forecourts, which serve millions of customers a week.

It works by using inbuilt cameras in a TV-style screen above the till that identify whether a customer is male or female, estimate their age and judge how long they look at the ad.
The ‘real time’ data is fed back to advertisers to give them a better idea of the effectiveness of their campaigns and enable them to tailor ads to certain times of the day.”

The story was repeated in a number of places, with varying degrees of criticism – but it was good to see that most of the reports did at least talk about the privacy angle, because, despite what Tesco and the providers of the system, Alan Sugar’s company Amscreen, might suggest, there really IS a privacy issue here. In fact, there are many privacy issues.

Data Protection

Tesco have ‘reassured’ us – even directly tweeting me about it – that there is no data protection issue here, that no data is collected or stored. I wonder how they are managing that – and whether they understand how digital technology works. In order for their analysis to take place – through which they attempt to ascertain the age and sex of the person in the queue – a photographic image of some kind must be taken. The ‘inbuilt camera’ mentioned must take such an image. That image is then analysed – for things like hair length, shape of face etc – in order to make that determination.

From what I have read it looks as though the OptimEyes system then discards the image – which is, presumably, why Tesco think no personal data is ‘collected or stored’. That, however, is highly unconvincing. First of all, the image IS personal data. Secondly, even if it is immediately discarded, it has still been collected. That engages Data Protection – and means that, in these circumstances, Tesco would presumably need to get the consent of the people who they are photographing. I find myself wondering how they are planning to do this – and whether they are really aware of the requirement. What’s more, that consent needs to be informed consent. I look forward to seeing the notifications on the systems making clear what is going on….

Vulnerabilities and function creep

It’s important also to understand that a system like this will also automatically have vulnerabilities – and that the functions to which it is put may ‘creep’. Once the systems are set up, new uses will be found for them. Economics is part of what drives this – any business wants to get the best out of its assets. Technology is another part of it: if you have the cameras in place, then why not use the latest analytic software on the images? They may currently promise not to use facial recognition software, only basic facial scanning software, but once we’re softened up to this system (see normalisation below) it will only be a matter of time before the software is ‘upgraded’. And then integrated with the Clubcard data of the shopper using the till?

Vulnerability is another side to this. Where data is gathered, it is always vulnerable – that is axiomatic. Even if it is held only for an instant it can be intercepted. Systems can fail. They can be hacked. Presumably the data is being analysed and tested so that the systems can be improved and developed – that testing adds additional vulnerabilities. Anyone paying even cursory attention to the NSA/GCHQ leaks from Edward Snowden should understand how easily and often systems can be compromised – and systems like those set up for seemingly innocuous things like advertising often have far fewer and less effective security that those that are taken more seriously. Why break into carefully control security cameras when you can hack more simply and easily into an insecure advertising camera system?

The security bargain?

That brings into play another issue that was brought up by a number of people in discussions over Twitter yesterday. The argument goes roughly like this: ‘there are already CCTV cameras everywhere, and we don’t care about them – why does this matter?’ It is true, of course, that CCTV cameras are pretty much everywhere in the UK today, and also true that for the most part we simply accept their existence. Why, then, do I think this is different? The first reason is that there is a different ‘bargain’ going on. With security based cameras the bargain is at least in some ways equal. We sacrifice some of our privacy in exchange for  at least a perception of an improvement in our security. We benefit from the (at least perceived) lowering of crime. Our environment is safer.

With this kind of system there is no such bargain going on. We are sacrificing some of our privacy – and in reality getting nothing in return. The only people benefiting from this are Tesco – and Amscreen. That is quite different.

Normalisation – and creepiness

For me, this is the most important angle. The reaction of many people, when reading about this kind of story is ‘this is really creepy’. They’re right – it is creepy. Even Simon Sugar, son of Alan, said ‘Yes it’s like something out of Minority Report’, without apparently realising that wasn’t something to be proud of. Creepiness matters – and we shouldn’t discard our cares about it just because they’re ‘emotional’. Personally I hope we keep on thinking this sort of thing is creepy – because the time we really need to worry is when we don’t think of it as creepy. When we’ve been so softened up by the constant attacks on our privacy to accept this as ‘normal’. That’s the key risk here for me – the risk of normalisation. The more systems like this are accepted without question, the easier it is for our lives to be constantly monitored and controlled. The less freedom we have.

This particular system may not matter very much. It may, as some have said to me, be pretty trivial and unlikely to work – there have been a few jokes about the unreliability of Amstrad technology in the past – but the normalisation really does matter. If Tesco are followed by Sainsbury’s, by Asda, by Waitrose etc etc and then these systems become the default, we really will have sleepwalked into a Minority Report situation.


A few things have been suggested – from wearing wigs, baseball caps and even burkas. I even toyed with the idea of wearing a Lord Sugar mask – but the best, right now, seems to me to be simply not use Tesco petrol stations… and to make a noise about this! Tell Tesco what you feel, that you don’t want this kind of system. Ultimately, Tesco will only make decisions based on money. If enough people stay away, if they get no economic benefit, then they might change their minds. Sadly it seems unlikely. In this country we don’t seem to care nearly enough about our privacy…..

Free speech under attack

The idea of freedom of speech, or freedom of expression, is bandied about a great deal these days. It’s sometimes easy to say it without understanding what it really means, and why it is important. Indeed, sometimes those who pose as the greatest champions of freedom of speech seem also to be amongst the biggest threats to it, and at every scale, from the Daily Mail, Telegraph and others attacking the Guardian as threatening national security to Richard Littlejohn, again in the Daily Mail, attacking Jack Monroe for having the temerity to blog. To some, it seems, freedom of expression should only apply to the kind of expression they like. That doesn’t seem much like freedom to me – and it also goes very much against the whole point of that freedom.

Freedom of expression and power…

Freedom of expression is enshrined in pretty much every important human rights document. That should make us ask a number of questions. First of all, what do we mean by it. Secondly, why does it matter so much. Thirdly, what are the threats to it. Finally, what do we need to do to protect it. These questions are not really separate – they’re all linked together, because, from one perspective at least, they all have an underlying theme: freedom of speech is about power. It’s about finding a way to redress the imbalances in power that exist in our world. It’s about holding the powerful to account – and doing what can be done to prevent the powerful from using that power to their own ends, and to the detriment of the less powerful. The primary threats to freedom of speech come from those trying to hold onto their power – and to prevent those who are less powerful from finding ways to be more powerful.

Freedom of expression and the press…

One of the main reasons that, historically in particular, the press has been so important, is that it has been a way to hold the powerful to account. Investigative journalism at its best does this – as the Watergate story bore out so dramatically. That’s where the Guardian’s publishing of the information leaked by Edward Snowden comes in. It’s pretty much the epitome of ‘old style’ freedom of expression. It’s what the press do at their very best – find out where governments have been overstepping their authority, misleading the public, becoming more controlling and authoritarian – and then making that information known. They’ve done a fantastic job – and one that has had repercussions around the world. They have shaken the most powerful institution on the planet – the US government – and opened up a huge debate (less so, sadly, in the UK than almost anywhere else) that needed to be opened up.

Freedom of expression and the UK government…

The way that the UK government – and David Cameron in particular – has threatened the Guardian over these stories should be taken very seriously. Grant Shapps’ attacks on the BBC are part of the same agenda – trying to stifle expression and to use their power to control the agenda.. Anyone – and yes, that includes the Daily Mail, the Sun and so forth – who supports the idea of freedom of speech, or who understand that idea in anything more than a perfunctory and selfish way, should be defending and supporting the Guardian in particular to the hilt. The lack of that support seems to me to be indicative of a failure in the UK to really grasp the point of freedom of expression – and its importance. That failure is echoed in many ways – and seemingly by almost all parties.

Freedom of expression – and its role – is under attack in a great many ways. Though I am distinctly ambivalent about the Royal Charter for press regulation, and see that many of those fighting against it are doing so for purely selfish reasons, without any feeling for or real belief in freedom of expression (witness the supine role of so much of Fleet Street over the attacks on the Guardian) it is entirely right to be deeply concerned about any direct governmental role in regulating the press. What is set up for one reason can very easily be used for another. Some slopes really are slippery…

Freedom of expression and surveillance…

…as the role of surveillance in practice demonstrates all too graphically. What is the real purpose of surveillance? Is it, as its advocates pronounce, to protect national security, to fight the terrorists and track down the paedophiles? That might be the aim in some circumstances, but in practice, as the many abuses of RIPA in the past has shown, it ends up being used for much more pragmatic purposes – and indeed more sinister ones. Internet surveillance has two direct impacts on freedom of expression. Where covert, it allows those with opinions (or those seeking out opinions) that are deemed ‘unacceptable’ to be tracked down and silenced. Where overt, it chills speech, and scares people into submission. Headlines like that in the BBC earlier this year ‘Whitehall chiefs scan Twitter to head off badger protests’ make the point: ‘don’t even think about tweeting about your protests, we’ll find you and stop you’.

That is another reason, of course, that the Guardian’s leaking of the Snowden stories are particularly significant if you’re an advocate of freedom of expression. Internet surveillance may be the biggest threat to freedom of expression of all – because the internet is where the biggest opportunities for freedom of expression now exist.

Freedom of expression and the internet…

Over the past decade or so, the internet has provided more and greater opportunities for freedom of expression than anyone could have imagined. The ability to blog and tweet gives a voice to millions who would otherwise not have had any opportunity to speak. It allows people to find information that they would otherwise have had no chance to find. It allows a sharing of views, a level of criticism and analysis that is wonderful for many, many people – but is deeply threatening to others. That’s why governments are often terrified of the internet – and one of the reasons why people like Richard Littlejohn, a ‘power’ of the ‘old’ press find people like Jack Monroe so frightening. Their power is under threat – so they want to do something about it.

That’s one of the reasons there are sometimes harsher laws for doing things on the internet than there are for doing the same things in ‘real’ life. That’s why there are so many moves to try to control and corral the internet – and why those moves should be resisted very carefully. The ongoing suggestions to build ‘default-on’ porn-filters is part of this – not only will the filters actually filter out far more than porn (indeed, one of my own blogs discussing porn filters was actually porn blocked!) but they establish the idea that filtering and censorship is not just acceptable but actually something good and worth promoting. The powerful want to control the internet. They want to retain their power – and that, in practice, means restricting freedom of speech.

Taking care of freedom of speech

Freedom of speech matters – it really does – and whenever we see it under attack, we need to think very carefully about it. Not just the specific attack, or the specific opinion being attacked, but the implications and the part that it plays in the bigger picture. We should be in a golden age of free speech – the technology should bring that – but we’re not. We should be feeling empowered and emboldened to take on the powerful and make the world a better, more liberated, more enlightened place. We’re in danger of making it exactly the opposite.