Why businesses don't help the government spy

On 29th March 1939, Chiswick hairdresser Maurice Childs was making his was way across Hammersmith Bridge in west London when he noticed an unattended suitcase. This was before the war, it was early morning in a tranquil part of the suburbs, so he opened the lid. Inside the package was smoking.

Childs lifted the case up and threw it over the side into the Thames. Once he reached a payphone on the bank to hit 999 [police], he heard a boom from the river behind him, and a spout of water shot into the air [PDF from London Gazette 1939].This was the first of numerous IRA bomb attempts on the bridge.

Today, even though this is an especially peaceful part of London – populated by lovely riverside pubs and dog walkers – there are CCTV cameras underneath the arches spying on everyone who passes by. Nobody minds because the need was clear – but times have changed and these days en masse surveillance technology doesn’t mean CCTV anymore – it is means data.  

London was systematically bombed for so long, UK attitudes to surveillance technology are more tolerant than many parts of Europe. Each country has its own history - in Germany, Rafael Laguna CEO of Open-Xchang told us the legacy of the Stasi has “created this deep rooted mistrust in even your own government collecting information about you”. While France – before Charlie Hebdo – was generally suspicious of data Big Brother style observation.

The cultural context for data collection is important because the UK government does seem especially keen on gathering mass data on us. Yet Dr Kirstie Ball, author of new book “The Private Security State? Surveillance, Consumer Data and the War on Terror” does not feel this is nefarious. She thinks it is about “being seen to do something” in the wake of all the terror threats.

What makes this book unique, though, is instead of focusing on how evil the government is for collecting our details, it looks at the private companies dragged into this mass surveillance. Based on evidence from the UK anti money laundering initiatives and the failed eBorders legislation, Ball, of the Open University, offers an ‘interdisciplinary’ approach and pulls on theory from different strands of academia.

Normally studies take a “top down” approach or a “bottom up” approach says Ball. Instead, this aims to address the specific business problems in the middle. eBorders, where the government mandated personal data capture on anyone leaving the UK, makes for any especially interesting case study.

People only talk about things that disadvantage them, says Ball and “the airline industry was spitting feathers about it [eBorders]… they were mad”. This is because a scheme like this placed “new pressures on [their] businesses”.

This weight of effort and difficulty was also unequally distributed depending on the size and type of the airline. It resulted in a loss of autonomy and “compromised the customer relationship”. And it also made passengers more afraid (or “dangerisation” as she terms it).

A lot of money was spent on something which “fell apart” says Ball. It has “quietly gone away” and the press hardly mention it now but she believes it “is going to creep back in”. She thinks a “big incident” where the government has to be seen to take action is likely to prove the catalyst.

This is typified by the current European debate around Passenger Name Records (PNR). The French were very opposed to this, says Ball, until the Charlie Hebdo attack.

Ball is adamant that “mass collection of metadata is unnecessary”. It is better to collect more targeted information on people than trying to capture everything. Yet she also feels that in five years’ time the UK government will “still be trying” unsuccessfully – to capture everything they can.

“It is an information systems problem at the end of the day,” she concludes. The private sector has its own money-making agenda, all its systems are separate from one another, and the government can’t simply muscle its way in and expect it all to work perfectly.  


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