A while ago I had the good fortune to spend a day with Henry Porter, an English author and political commentator. He was doing a documentary on surveillance technologies, and we talked about RFID; the footage is playing on a cutting-room floor somewhere, but it was still a good time.
Since then, I’ve been reading his Observer column off and on, and as someone who loves going to England, was really struck by his recent howl over the British government’s latest proposals to gather information about travelers.
Welcome to Fortress Britain, a fortress that will keep people in as well as out. Welcome to a state that requires you to answer 53 questions before you’re allowed to take a day trip to Calais. Welcome to a country where you will be stopped, scanned and searched at any of 250 railways stations, filmed at every turn, barked at by a police force whose behaviour has given rise to a doubling in complaints concerning abuse and assaults.
Three years ago, this would have seemed hysterical and Home Office ministers would have been writing letters of complaint. But it is a measure of how fast and how far things have gone that it does nothing more than describe the facts as announced last week.
We now accept with apparent equanimity that the state has the right to demand to know, among other things, how your ticket has been paid for, the billing address of any card used, your travel itinerary and route, your email address, details of whether your travel arrangements are flexible, the history of changes to your travel plans plus any biographical information the state deems to be of interest or anything the ticket agent considers to be of interest.
There is no end to Whitehall’s information binge. The krill of personal data is being scooped up in ever-increasing quantities by a state that harbours a truly bewildering fear of the free, private and self-determined individual, who may want to take himself off to Paris without someone at home knowing his movements or his credit card number.
[To the tune of Pink Floyd, “The Fletcher Memorial Home,” from the album “The Final Cut“.]