Security and risk
The twentieth century saw a dramatic change in the role of the state in many countries. During most of the nineteenth century, an individual might only have come into contact with the state for the purposes of taxation, marriage and death. At the end of that century and the beginning of the next, however, a series of social revolutions saw the state becoming involved in our health care, pensions and education. Unsurprisingly, each of these developments was accompanied by a significant increase in the amount of personal information stored about every one of us.
Computer technologies were developed especially to serve the enormous projects involved. IBM became a highly successful company due to its work on censuses in the USA and Europe, while the world’s first business computer, LEO, was used for a variety of tasks including the calculation of tax tables for the British Treasury in the 1950s.
With the vast amount of personal information being held about us in various places, it is becoming increasingly important for us to be able to prove our identities – not just for travel but for other activities such as purchasing expensive or restricted items, paying bills and opening bank accounts. The UK is unusual in Europe in that (at the time of writing in 2019) it does not have a compulsory identity card system, despite the fact that identity cards were put in place during both world wars. However, effectively, driving licences, passports and some types of travel pass have become forms of identity card. In several countries, identity card or passport schemes are being upgraded with new biometric technologies such as iris or face recognition, which claim to identify individuals uniquely.
As well as the personal information that we know about, there may also exist information about us of which we are unaware. Since the terrorist attacks on the USA in 2001, much of the western world has become far more security conscious, and governments and companies alike have developed and deployed technological countermeasures. These range from smart video surveillance systems that can identify an individual in a crowd and track their movements, through the biometric technologies mentioned above, to the searching of databases for suspicious activity.
Activity 6 (exploratory) Experience of technological security issues
Can you recall an occasion when you have been personally aware of technological security measures?
My own experience of security measures at airports involves checking in online and giving details of my own passport and that of my travelling companion several weeks before travelling to mainland Europe. A colleague who visited the USA recently went through a range of airport security screenings. In addition to having his belongings checked, he was photographed at least twice (as well as being under almost constant video surveillance in the airports), had his fingerprints scanned electronically, and was required to fill in numerous online and paper forms.
The promise is that such technologies will make us safer but could they turn the world we live in into a society strangely reminiscent of the nightmare vision of ‘Big Brother’ in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four?
As you’ve seen so far in this section, there is plenty of opportunity for digital information about each of us to be created. Some of this information we might intentionally give out ourselves – on social networking sites, for example. Other information about us may, as described above, be gathered more surreptitiously by various agencies.
In general, we have little control over how digital information about us is used or who receives it. We might assume that information gathered legally by a government agency, for instance, will be handled appropriately and used only for our benefit. Yet there have been many examples of governments and private organisations ‘losing’ confidential data by storing or transferring it insecurely. For example, in 2015, the communications company TalkTalk was forced to issue a warning to its customers that their data had been hacked and that criminals were using the stolen information to trick people into handing over their bank details.