In-depth

The Orwellian Nightmare: Version 2.0

With personal data being gathered on such a wide scale by both companies and governments, Tom Brewster asks: Are we in an updated version of the Orwellian Nightmare?

It is easy to use George Orwell's 1984 as a comparative reference to where society is at now, but the novel is surely as important as it ever has been.

The modern classic presaged a dystopian society where people were deprived of privacy and, as a ruling body, the Party watched every move citizens made through its Big Brother mechanism.

While Orwell was onto something, however, his prediction (if it indeed was one) of an omnipotent, omniscient, singular controlling body was not exactly spot on.

In today's Western world the central powers aka each nation's government are not the only ones watching over us, gathering our data and making use of it.

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Instead, there are now an abundance of organisations mining personal information to ascertain what people are doing, and even to predict what they will do next.

Given the sheer proliferation of data available over the web and the huge range of sources, companies do not have a particularly arduous task in gathering our information these days.

And whilst in 1984 the Party was the dominant force of one state, Oceania, these companies are global and able to gather people's data regardless of location.

So, a question: Are we now living in the updated version of the Orwellian Nightmare?

Where did my data go?

One of the main questions to grapple with is whether many are simply unaware of what is happening to their personal information. When entering details for online services, be they government or corporate run, do people know enough about what is going to happen to their data?

According to Phil Booth, national coordinator for NO2ID, they do not. As we chat in a quaint little pub not too far from the corridors of power in Westminster, Booth talked of the complexity of the systems the common user will regularly interact with.

Much of what goes over the internet is done "invisibly, obscurely or arbitrarily" and it is not easy for the average user to understand why certain online events directly affecting them come to pass, said Booth, an erudite man who likes to pick a fight where he feels there needs to be one.

It is only when you get organisations like No2ID, which will look at drawing attention to the issues at hand, that people even begin to get the kind of information they need to understand their particular situation, Booth added

He also took umbrage with the DNA database and the Police National Computer (PNC). Booth claimed to have seen print outs that "seemed to indicate" information stored on the PNC can be accessed when companies carry out Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks on potential new employees, even though he had been told this was not possible.

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Undoubtedly, this could have detrimental effects on people's lives, without them even realising it.

"If you've got an employer who has two pretty much, for all intents and purposes, identical candidates for a job, one of them has nothing showing up on their enhanced CRB check, one of them has an entrance on the PNC, what are you going to do? In our risk averse culture I contend that you are going to throw away the one with the record," Booth added.

Easy access

Another issue is the ease of access to data, according to Roger Llewellyn, chief executive of Kognitio a company which operates in the data analysis sphere.

"It is not too difficult to get data from the DVLA, it's not too difficult to get data from the census and it is not too difficult for you to get data from supermarkets and loyalty cards," Llewellyn told IT PRO.

"If you take that combination to get that data just on you alone, I could probably articulate quite a lot about how you are living your life."

He claimed even smaller-sized companies could get their hands on enough information, without much enhanced technology, to have a good idea of how consumers are behaving. They could know when people bought fuel, for instance, or when they visited the supermarket, surmised Llewellyn, another articulate and well-informed character.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for people to be able to keep their data confidential in the face of the "plethora and variance of data" out there, Llewellyn added.

Furthermore, he said big corporations actually have scant regard for the end user.

"These companies, nor other companies, are particularly interested in individuals," he told IT PRO.

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"Most of the large trading companies are only interested in huge market trends. They are not interested in what you are doing, or what I'm doing, they are interested in what 400,000 people like us are doing."

Concerning sentiments indeed, made even more worrying given the man who is expressing them.

The business case

Let us not get carried away too quickly though. The internet has literally opened up a whole new world (albeit a virtual one) of business opportunity and there is a clear case that taking people's information from the web or other sources can help with competitive advantage and still bring benefits to the end user.

This is one of the main reasons behind the growth of the business intelligence industry, for example, and the analytics segment built into that. According to Llewellyn, nine in 10 of those who want to use others' data are doing so to make people's lives better.

There are various examples where Llewellyn's sentiments ring true. Album suggestions on internet-based music services, for instance, is a useful feature, albeit one that is a clear money-spinner for the sellers as well as a handy tool for users.

Also, garages being able to ascertain the state of a car by simply looking through the information stored on a chip inside the vehicle undoubtedly makes life easier for both parties involved.

So, businesses' use of personal data is, from this perspective at least, positive for both sides.

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