David Bond is the writer, director and star of Erasing David, an award winning and critically acclaimed documentary about the way the surveillance state has impinged on our civil liberties and right to privacy. He made the film, which sees him attempt to hide for a month from private investigators who have access to national databases and CCTV, after the details of his three-year-old daughter Ivy were lost by the government. He speaks to LWLies about the unknown, pernicious threats of vast CCTV networks and massive databases like the National ID Register, the NHS database, the National DNA database and the role that market forces play in social profiling the consumer.
LWLies: Erasing David recently screened at the Human Rights Film Festival in Ukraine. Do you see it as a film about human rights?
Bond: The festival’s full of really heavy films that try and persuade you that there’s something wrong with the world by showing you really horrific things. I really embrace that and I think it’s amazing work and often amazing investigative journalism, but it was really amazing to get the response we got. People were like ‘Oh, it really is a human rights film, but it’s also like a thriller, and we really enjoyed it.’ It got huge cheers in the room, and they said ‘In Ukraine we have no privacy rights at all.’ I don’t think they over-egg it, but I sometimes think that if you respect someone’s privacy and you respect the limits of what they want you to know about them, then that’s a really good foundation for lots of other things like a decent judicial system and decent way of policing people, and the way one treats their neighbours. The more I get into it, the more I think the whole privacy thing is absolutely central in terms of a decent way of treating each other.
Do you feel we need to completely reform privacy laws because of the way they’re impinging on our civil liberties?
I support the idea of a bill of rights, where we establish clearly what our rights to privacy are, but I actually think the legal side is less important, particularly with the growth of technology. It’s so hard to get legislation to keep track with what’s happening with technology. But actually, and I think much more importantly, the challenge is education followed by control and consent so we’re able to get to the stage where we know what’s out there about us. That’s an education thing – be interested and aware of the fact that, for example, when you get two per cent off your Tesco shopping because you’ve given them all of your details, they’re actually making a lot more than that. It’s a financial transaction, although it doesn’t feel like that. You’re giving them something they really want, which is data which gives them a huge amount of power to twist the arms of other consumers, and you, to behave in a certain way. In return they’re only giving you a very small amount of money back. It’s about being aware of those sort of tacit transactions that are out there. Another example is Facebook. If you talk to people about Facebook they say 'Yes, it’s this amazing bit of free software where you can be mates with people.' I’m not against Facebook at all, but that’s not what it is. What happens is you enter a contract with them where you give them a huge amount of data and they then own that and can use it to market.
But surely it’s data that you’re in control of. If you create an image of yourself that doesn’t necessarily correspond to who you are, then the data they have on you is false. Many people probably don't feel betrayed by Facebook...
You’re probably a wise user of it, but a lot of people aren’t. We want to point out to people who haven’t thought about it in those terms exactly what’s going on. And I’d also say also whatever your image of yourself is that you do represent on Facebook, when you combine it with the image you represent on Twitter and through your writings online and you combine that with info that’s freely available on profiling systems and information you might have to give the Government, as soon as the resolute picture comes together no one piece of information is bad. It’s not that one piece of info out there is bad in itself. What’s bad is when they can be brought together and can be used to try and predict your future decisions.
So is what you’re talking about a symptom of technology or capitalism or the policies of the current Government?
I think it’s led by market forces primarily, so the first thing that happens is market forces provide these amazing solutions. And they’re often a solution to a battlefield problem. So in Afghanistan they had to find a way of quickly fingerprinting and iris scanning hundreds of tribesmen and then analyse that quickly. This is a problem, so the defence companies and the technology companies come along and make kit that does that. But then, because of the system we’ve got with the way that stuff works, very quickly secondary markets are found for it. So you suddenly find the same algorithm in a school in Gloucestershire. It’s mentioned in the film – the company that makes that bit of fingerprinting technology also makes battlefield systems in Iraq and Afghanistan so there’s a kind of what I think is best described as Scope-Creep, where you make a bit of kit or you set up a system like the National ID register or the NHS database – let’s look at the NHS database. So if you break your leg in Wales and you have particular needs then the doctor there can access your database and find out about your medical history and your particular needs. That’s what we’re sold. But as soon as it’s set up, actually we discover that it’s this incredible social profiling tool, a cradle to the grave social profiling tool which allows Governments and private companies to analyse our behaviour patterns based on our medical records.
But hypothetically if you get run over tomorrow and you're diabetic, surely it’s a comfort that this databse exists and can be used meaningfully?
Yes, but this is a classic argument that I hear loads. It’s an argument from an individual case to a mass piece of surveillance. So what you say is, ‘I’ve got a medical problem, so let’s put everyone on the system,’ or ‘a few people plant bombs on buses, so let’s watch everyone’ or ‘there are a few people out there that commit serial murders, so let’s take everyone’s DNA’ and it’s very easy to go from one to another without thinking about the other possibilities. In the case of the NHS database, if you do have a medical need then you go on the database, and I totally support that, I like the idea of an at risk database, like a medical alert. That makes sense to me. The dangerous idea is that you log and store information about everyone irrespective of whether it’s of use to you in an emergency situation, so it would also have information like whether you used to smoke ten years ago. Now that’s not going to help them sort you out in A&E, but it’s sure as hell going to help the insurance company in twenty years time when they decide you shouldn’t get cover for your health insurance.
Blair mentioned the DNA database in length at his campaign speech in Sedgefield, despite civil liberties not being a massively discussed issue in the election. He argued that in time it would actually be good for our civil liberties...
I’m not at all surprised to hear that is his line. He’s a classic example of someone who’s not very technologically knowledgeable. He doesn’t really understand the technology. When he got into power, I think he was hoodwinked by a lot of very smart scientists who, for one reason or another, thought they could solve certain problems, like crime or terrorism or the health service. These are big problems. If you look at Labour’s record, or maybe their legacy after May 6, they've produced a lot of massive systems – the National ID register, the NHS database. These are colossally expensive systems that have purported to solve problems. There is very little evidence to suggest they’re actually eliciting a useful response, that they’re working. I’m on shaky ground here, because I was talking to someone the other day who said they’d been the victim of a violent crime and their victims had been caught through the National DNA database, and they were saying 'Do you wish my aggressors had never been caught?' Well, of course not. But again, it is a single instance being used to argue a mass statement. What I would say is that keeping DNA of violent criminals who’s DNA has been kept at the crime scene, that does make sense to me, in much the same way that keeping murder implements in an archive somewhere, and keeping recordings of police interviews make sense, as they’re important pieces of evidence. But I have also talked to someone who was charged and cleared with a mugging. She’s 16, she was in prison for 24 hours before being released, and her DNA was taken and is now on the database for 12 years. Now we don’t know what that DNA is going to be able to prove about her in 12 years time. It is a fundamental possession of hers, that DNA. And there is no reason why the state should hold it in my view.