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In search of intelligence

Updated Wednesday, 11th March 2009

Ivan Horrocks takes a look at the data trail we leave behind ourselves

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Some years ago I attended a conference at which an IT expert gave one of the most straightforward and insightful accounts of the design and use of modern day databases and data mining technologies. Drawing on a range of examples he demonstrated how the interpretation and management and control of decision and policy making is passed down to database developers and then transferred (i.e. embedded) into these technological systems. At this point these value-laden, subjective, actions appear to become autonomous political calculations – that is, technical and technological, and therefore 'neutral' and free from human influence.

The expert went on to demonstrate how the integration of databases via network technologies such as the internet, and the extensive opportunities for data mining and matching this creates, enables the creation of data doubles. In plain English: versions of ourselves that are assembled from data about us that we leave behind as we make our way around cyberspace or other IT systems. For example, the web sites we visit, the books, music, travel tickets, and holidays we purchase, what we watch, our profiles on social network sites like Facebook, the discussion groups we participate in, the blogs we read, and so on. When mined, matched and reassembled, whether by commercial organisations, or governments and their agencies this creates and defines our data double.

Is your data double a true reflection? Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Photos.com Is your data double a true reflection?

At first glance this sounds as if it’s a relatively straightforward and fairly innocuous process of aggregation, except it’s at this point that those seemingly autonomous political calculations that are embedded into these IT systems re-enter the equation. In reality the identity of a person’s data double is defined less by our own actions than it is by the assumptions, beliefs and opinions of the people who are the policy and decision makers behind the deployment of these systems and how these have been interpreted by the system’s developers. Or, to use a topical example, if you’ve been on holiday to an eco-friendly holiday resort, purchased books by the environmentalist George Monboit, and contributed to blogs opposing the extension of Heathrow airport, it’s currently highly likely that your data double will have been defined accordingly, even if the other 90 per cent of the 'real' you is more akin to Jeremy Clarkson.

While the identity of our data double has limited interest (as far as we know) to commercial organisations such as Amazon, who would simply use it for marketing purposes, it’s not a so straightforward matter when it comes to government. Of course, on the surface, the situation today appears little different to the position that has long applied: pretty much anyone who had leftwing tendencies, joined CND, and/or who visited the Soviet Union prior to its collapse would have a data double that was defined accordingly – albeit on paper (a not insignificant factor, by the way).

Then, as now, the collection of personal data and its use in defining individuals in accordance with the assumptions and beliefs of policy makers, intelligence operatives and other servants of the state was largely justified on the grounds of the search for intelligence in pursuit of national security. I would argue, however, that nowadays this overlooks a far more profound development – the convergence of a number of policy agendas under the seemingly well meaning pursuit of joined-up government.

Put very briefly, the doctrine of joined-up government emerged shortly after the election of new Labour in 1997 and signalled a new, systematic approach to government and policy making. It was, as Bogdanor states, a wider perspective on public administration and management that sought to "make a frontal attack on the so-called 'wicked issues'". That is, issues that pose "a problem for which a solution is either intractable or not easily found, perhaps because of uncertainty as to how to define the problem itself, or uncertainty or disagreement about its causes." (Bogdanor, V. (Ed) (2005: 6) Joined-Up Government, Oxford University Press)

This is an admirable aim, and one that almost anyone who’s had dealings with government bureaucracy would see as inherently progressive. It is not surprising then that, within in a few years, joined-up government had been absorbed into the culture of UK government. Here it coalesced with older public management goals, such as the pursuit of the three E’s (economy, efficiency and effectiveness), and became instrumental in shaping such strategies as Transformational Government (Cabinet Office, 2005), a key objective of which is information sharing across government and the deployment of the IT systems that allow this. But the true significance of the doctrine of joined-up government is much more profound, I’d suggest, for two interrelated reasons. First, its progressiveness rationalises and legitimises the exchange of information across government and thus promotes a highly uncritical and unquestioning attitude to data mining, matching and profiling. Second, it encourages ignorance of the tensions between liberation and control that are inherent in the development of the technologies that allow this. In short, when the doctrine of joined-up government is combined with the security and intelligence policy agendas and the capabilities of IT, I’d argue that we are creating a ‘perfect storm’ in which the real identities of a large and growing number of citizens will be supplanted by our data doubles and our lives will be circumscribed accordingly.

The routine retort to this type of claim is that it’s scaremongering, and anyway, the 'innocent' have nothing to fear. And yet there are enough examples from the relatively recent past of the failure of the ‘innocent are safe’ claim to almost entirely negate this lazy and dubious defence. I’d also suggest that the policy and decision makers whose beliefs and assumptions translate into the autonomous political calculations of the IT systems that underpin the surveillance state are at least implicitly aware that their reputations and positions in society mean they can be confident their data doubles will adequately reflect the real them, and, even if they don’t, anomalies can be easily corrected or safely ignored.

Unfortunately most of us aren’t in this position, which means that if features of our data double attract the attention of these systems, it may prove very difficult to convince our accusers that our data double isn’t really a very good likeness of our 'real', physical selves. Ask anyone who’s been a victim of identify theft for confirmation of what an uphill task claiming a 'clean' identity back can be. What the pursuit of joined-up government and its sister and sibling policies and practices requires, therefore, is a new search for intelligence: an intelligence that fully recognises the threats posed to the majority of the citizens of the UK if our identities are reduced to our data doubles.

 

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