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Erasing David

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?

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  1. Do see the film if you can, Simply. It’s fun and engaging, as I’ve said. But it’s also interesting because of the way it unintentionally undermines the “surveillance state” thesis and shows it up for the paranoid conspiracy theory it is.

  2. Being worried about the what it would cost the Government to actually create the database should be most people’s main concern. IT Projects and our Civil Service do not get on too well. However I think that most people should be concerned about the contents of the blog entitled The Dog That Didn’t Bark In The Night over at

    I noticed that you didn’t mention increased use of RIPA.

  3. Isn’t that a bit like complaining that Richard Dawkins hasn’t sufficiently set out his view of divinity? It seems to me those who believe in a “surveillance society” or a “surveillance state” are the ones who ought to explain what they mean by it.

    For what it’s worth, though, it seems to me that the term conjures up a nightmare vision of us all being watched by the police or the state, a bit like people were by the Stasi in East Germany. Part of Erasing David is filmed in Berlin, where comparisons were made between the UK now and the GDR then. I think those comparisons are absurd, to be honest. But they do suggest something more sinister is being implied than simply that, say, data protection law should be tightened up a bit.

  4. On reflection I think my earlier comment could be read as brusque or an attempt to score points – I didn’t intend that. Carl, I didn’t want to put words in your mouth or argue with a position I’ve imagined rather your actual position. Please forgive me for a fairly long response!

    My definition of a surveillance society is a society where a substantial proportion of the population is subject to pervasive surveillance (including database records, or ‘dataveillance’). It isn’t necessarily a Bad Thing in itself, there is merely a tool or collection of tools, unless you think a ‘chilling effect’ can result from such a tool (and I happen to think that it can from one or two).

    I don’t believe the state is “spying” on us but it does nevertheless have detailed records of a great number of our activities and there are serious proposals to record even more. Obviously private organisations do too (the Government often prays in aid the Tesco clubcard) but usually only if we have opted to use them. It seems unreasonable to disagree that there is mass, pervasive surveillance at present.

    I don’t think we live in the modern equivalent of East Germany under the Stasi but I do think that we live in a surveillance society as I defined it above. I don’t think there is an evil conspiracy, I think there is a mix of good intentions, political expediency and, on occasion, incompetence (oh, and from time to time some smearing of opponents involved in the debate). I like to apply Hanlon’s Razor but I think Clark’s Law should be considered, too.

    There is a well-known and respected security expert, Bruce Schneier, who often mentions his five steps for thinking about a security proposal:

    1) What problem does it solve?
    2) How well does it solve the problem?
    3) What new problems does it add?
    4) What are the economic and social costs?
    5) Given the above, is it worth the costs?

    I think this is applicable to the types of systems we’re talking about, too, and I do not believe that the Government takes that kind of process seriously enough – particularly step 3. Having seen a lot of evidence to Parliamentary committees from experts such as Professor Ross Anderson, and having read much of their work, I have the impression that they would agree with me.

    With regard to your last point about “private interests” spying on individuals, whether those interests are newspapers reporting on leaders’ wives or council staff using CCTV to watch women in their bedrooms, I do think privacy is an essential part of liberty – the default should be that I have freedom to do as I please without being surveilled and any non-consensual infringement shown to be necessary and proportionate.
    .-= ukliberty´s last blog ..Playing to the gallery on ‘self-defence’ =-.

  5. No problem, ukliberty – I didn’t think you were being rude! Our feelings on this are very different: I don’t think storing loads of records amounts to “mass, pervasive surveillance” at all.

    It may seem funny given my views on DNA, CCTV etc, but in some ways I ought be a natural supporter of the civil liberties position. My instinct is to resist giving companies data about me unless I’m satisfied they need it, for instance, and I’m not keen on ID cards because I fear one day it’d be made compulsory to carry them, which in my view would be a real infringement of freedom. So I am not saying everything in the UK is perfect in terms of privacy and data protection. But equally, I don’t think there is one big civil liberties cause here, but rather a series of individual issues about which one can have a variety of feelings.

    I also think comparing the UK, one of the freest societies there’s every been, to a police state is an insult to the victims of real police states. The tendency of some civil liberties campaigners to do that repels me.

    As for “necessary and proportionate”, well, we all agree with that in principle. We may well disagree on the application of the principles, though. For instance, I think dishonestly depriving a child of the school place he or she should have is seriously wrong, and needs to be stopped: I think it’s very necessary for some public authority to use strong investigative powers to stop it. I think it’s those who think they have some sort of human right not to be caught cheating the system who have a disproportionate view of things.

  6. Carl, I agree it is wrong to compare the UK with genuine police states.

    I’m interested to know why you think being made to carry an ID card is an infringement of freedom. Also, you say that “my instinct is to resist giving companies data about me unless I’m satisfied they need it” – why “companies” and not anyone, including the government?
    .-= ukliberty´s last blog ..Playing to the gallery on ‘self-defence’ =-.

  7. Having to carry a card around would be a real obligation. It’d limit my ability to go out without “stuff”. I don’t see why I should necessarily have to carry stuff around with me all the time. I could be convinced it was a good idea if there was a good reason; having to stop at a red light is a real infringement on freedom, too, but there’s a good reason for it. But I haven’t been convinced there’s a good reason for compulsory carrying of ID cards.

    On companies and the government, yes, the same principle applies to both. But I can’t remember the last time the government actually asked me for any information at all. Maybe I’ve forgotten something obvious – but I can’t. And thinking about the information I know the “government” in the broadest sense has about me – my tax returns, my address (for voting purposes for instance), my national insurance records, my medical records and my car registration details come immediately to mind – it strikes me that it’s all indisputably necessary for them to hold, and for good reason. Not just that they want to sell me something.

    Whereas companies always seem to be asking for my phone number when I see no reason for them to phone me.

  8. Thanks for your reply Carl. Incidentally I must say I enjoy your podcasts with CharonQC; they are informative and enjoyable.

    “it strikes me that it’s all indisputably necessary for them to hold, and for good reason.”

    Well, I think that’s arguable but disregarding that for now I have a couple of questions:

    1. Would you disapprove of all such government databases being combined into one or would you rather databases be kept separate for specific functions and access limited to specific people/organisations?

    2. In your view does there need to be an ‘action’ for there to be an infringement of freedom or can something be an infringement merely because it exists?
    .-= ukliberty´s last blog ..Playing to the gallery on ‘self-defence’ =-.