Erasing David is David Bond’s documentary dealing with liberty, privacy and the “surveillance state” – I was lucky enough to attend a screening last night. The official website describes it in these terms:
David Bond lives in one of the most intrusive surveillance states in the world. He decides to find out how much private companies and the government know about him by putting himself under surveillance and attempting to disappear, a decision that changes his life forever. Leaving his pregnant wife and young child behind, he is tracked across the database state on a chilling journey that forces him to contemplate the meaning of privacy and the loss of it.
The first thing to say is that Erasing David is an absorbing, entertaining and well made film which certainly does make you think. I enjoyed it a lot. The concept is an intriguing one, David Bond is engaging company and often funny, and the detectives he challenges to track him down are an interesting pair, too. The film has humour as well as a serious message, and is all the better for that. It’s well worth seeing either in the cinema or when it’s shown on More4 next Tuesday at 10 pm. It’s a good piece of work and a contribution to an important debate. Do you feel a but coming?
The but is simply this: I don’t think Erasing David even gets close to making out its implicit argument that we live in a “database state”. I do not share the conventional liberal wisdom that we live in some sort of “surveillance society”, and as I watched Erasing David I began to think it confirms my feelings much more than it does the fears of civil liberties campaigners.
The first, crucial point is that right from the very start, David Bond concedes the central point of the argument: the state would not try to find him unless he committed a crime, he tells us. That’s why he involves private investigators. Had he not approached them, he wouldn’t have been under any surveillance at all. The so-called surveillance state simply isn’t interested.
But the methods the investigators use to find him are also revealing. They do not use DNA or the DNA database. Of course not – partly because they have no access to it, and partly because DNA can’t be used in surveillance. Nor do they use CCTV, partly because they have no access to it, I suppose. So neither of the main building blocks of the “surveillance state” is tested by the film, which provides us with precisely no evidence that either can be used to keep tabs on us, or is being used in that way by “the state”.
In fact, the methods they used to track him owed nothing to databases or to the state. They harvested as much information as they could from websites, like Facebook and LinkedIn, where Bond had voluntarily posted information, without any requirement or encouragement from the state. They searched his dustbin. Then they contacted his friends and tried to lure them into revealing information about him. They found his address and those of his parents (information which must be accessible through something like the electoral register, I accept) and were prepared to stalk those addresses – a very low-tech method of surveillance. They tried to trick him into visiting a special website so they could locate him via computers. Finally, they impersonated him over the phone, gulling the NHS to remind him of his wife’s ante-natal appointment, and gambling that they might find him there, too.
What does any of this prove? Nothing. The information about the appointment was nothing to do with databases: that might have been any appointment, public or private, noted down in any diary. Is our privacy breached when our friends jot down reminders of our lunch dates? And how could that kind of data security breach be prevented? Only by the NHS’s insistence on having you provide secure evidence of your identity – for instance by asking to see your passport, something the film suggests at one point would be a privacy risk, or by means of the sort of biometric ID system that would horrify David Bond. The key point of the whole film proves that talk of a “surveillance state” does not refer to one, big cause at all but to a series of separate causes of concern (DNA, CCTV, data error, identity theft, fraud, commercial use of data, carelessness about social media, the risk of investigators training through your bins …) some of which, crucially, are in tension with each other and none of which relate to anything the state is doing.
David Bond pleaded with us in a discussion after the screening (those who do not have unusual health conditions, anyway) not to allow our data to be held on the new NHS database. But I was no clearer by then what bad thing he thought could happen to us if we did. What is the actual fear? And what is the proposal to deal with it? The only real damage to individuals the film cites are the case of a woman whose criminal record wrongly says she has committed theft (which would be solved by improving the criminal records system, not by abolishing it) and the case of a man wrongly drawn into a child porn investigation (but released because his credit card company had a computer record of where his card had fraudulently been used). David Bond fell back on imagining a possible future tyranny and the potential for it to abuse our data. But a future tyranny would not need DNA, CCTV, credit cards or computers in order to oppress any of us. The Nazis had none of those things, and the Stasi can at most have used bad computers in their last few years. Just as David Bond was tracked using old-fashioned methods, so those same old-fashioned means could be and have been used to build a genuine police state. In contrast to real history, David Bond’s concerns are simply sci-fi horror fantasies that happen to fascinate, just now, a surprising number of people in our very free society.
A final point. The state, as I’ve said, is not spying on us. There are, however, private interests who are prepared to follow and spy on an innocent woman as she buys underwear, to photograph her and to tell us all about it, without public interest justification. If you’re as shocked as I am by that, read all about it here. If you want to do something about that sort of real surveillance, you need to defend privacy law against claims of untrammelled liberty. Do all civil liberties campaigners agree about that?