SOME RADICAL friends didn't share the enthusiastic reception for Lives of Others, the haunting recent film about life under the Stasi, the East German secret police. It wasn't the acting or even the Big-Brother type plot of hidden manipulation and control that they objected to: what got up their noses was the complacent implicit assumption that the West wasn't an equally enthusiastic user of similar surveillance techniques, even if mostly (so far as we know) for commercial rather than political ends.
They have a point. 'We live in a surveillance society,' was the bald assessment of a report for the information commissioner last year that catalogued in detail the technologies and processes by which we are all logged, profiled and digitised daily at work and at play - credit, loyalty, Oyster and swipe cards, mobile phones, congestion charges, work log-ins and activity monitors, interactions with public and private-sector call centres, not to mention the ubiquitous CCTV cameras.
One striking measure of the burgeoning of surveillance is the growth of the industry that provides it: in the three years to 2006 the top 100 US surveillance companies had doubled in value to $400bn. Surveillance is big business.
Even individual surveillance uses are hard to track and regulate, as technology runs ahead of the ability to foresee its implications. But in combination with 'function creep' (where a mechanism set up for one purpose, like a travel card, is then used for another, such as tracking movement), increasingly complex networks of information-sharing across private and public sectors, from credit-rating to benefits agencies and hospitals, make it almost impossible for people to assert their right to know the information held about them.
It's like a 'first life' version of the virtual-reality website Second Life: whether we like it or not we all have shadowy 'avatars', digital doubles of ourselves, assembled by computer from dozens of different database components, that are logged and managed in ways of which we are only dimly aware. Although untethered from the office by mobiles and laptops, some remote workers find their digital selves more controlled and monitored than before. For consumers and citizens, racial and postcode profiling and credit rating are just the beginning. When you contact some call centres you are categorised by level of spending and served accordingly Amazon can price goods differently for different customers.
Not all surveillance is bad - accurate records can protect the innocent as well as identify wrongdoers - and some of it, as the information commissioner notes, is an inescapable part of being modern. The technology itself is neutral, as Lives of Others demonstrates, however the use made of it can be anything but. The report warns that it is naive and dangerous to sleepwalk into a world where gathering, processing and sorting personal data is no longer just an overlay, like CCTV cameras, but a part of life's basic infrastructure, without debate or understanding what it means.
Part of the danger is cock-up rather than conspiracy: at a very basic level so much of the information gathered is just wrong. One study found that 22 per cent of a sample of entries into a police computer contained errors, even when double-checked. Names are misspelt and addresses wrongly coded. The impact of such errors is compounded by sharing what's more, they are not remedied by the enthusiastic addition of more technology - as the IC report points out, a managerialist solution that often makes the original problem still harder to unravel, as well as locking us in to technology and expertise beyond democratic control.
At the same time, to a computer your digital identity is more real than the physical one indeed, if you don't have a computer identity you don't exist at all. Hence the phenomenon of the invisible consumer and the unreachable company, separated by the impenetrable barrier of the computer. When, as is the way of technological advance, the monitoring of information is taken away from humans in the name of rationality and given over to algorithms, the wrongness can become surreal. If computers decide who gets passports or is employed, we really are rattling the bars of sociologist Max Weber's bureaucratic 'iron cage'.
Surveillance is a substitute for trust. At work or as citizens, some people break trust, so surveillance is necessary. The dilemma is that by fostering suspicion and making people feel mistrusted, it increases the chances that they act in ways that seem to justify the surveillance. Lives of Others plays out this tension, before ending on a note of wry individual redemption. A small victory for humanity. Yet in real life the nightmare prospect of surveillance managing us rather than the opposite is apparent, and it will take more than fiction to reverse it.
The Observer, 19 August 2007