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Preparing for your digital life in the 21st Century
Preparing for your digital life in the 21st Century

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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 healthcare, 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, whilst 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 2010) it does not have a compulsory identity card system, despite the fact that identity cards were put in place during both world wars. In several countries, identity card or passport schemes are being upgraded with new biometric technologies such as iris or face recognition, which (perhaps rather over-ambitiously) promise to uniquely identify individuals.

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 his or her movements, through the biometric technologies mentioned above, to the searching of databases for suspicious activity.

Activity 6 (exploratory)

Can you recall an occasion when you have been personally aware of technological security measures?


On a recent visit to the USA I went through a range of airport security screenings. In addition to having my belongings checked, I was photographed at least twice (as well as being under almost constant video surveillance in the airports), had my 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 contained in George Orwell’s novel 1984?

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 transferring it insecurely. For example, in November 2008 the UK government announced that two CDs containing personal information about 25 million people had been lost by HM Revenue and Customs when they were posted to the National Audit Office. If criminals got hold of such information then there would be the risk of our identity or our money being stolen.