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What’s my number?


THE GREATEST THREAT to the state is its own citizens: that’s the only conclusion you can come to once you become aware of how much the state spies on us and seeks to constrain our existence. That suspicion may have dawned for the first time on many people over the last year and no doubt surprised them. After, all they thought they had been living in a freedom-loving democracy in which the state generally kept itself out of their private lives.

Now they find themselves living in a country more reminiscent of the former Soviet bloc or the world of The Prisoner, the television series from 1967, in which the protagonist is unable to leave the coastal town to which he has been abducted. In that series, the hero is renamed Number Six, having been deprived of his individual identity. His famous  despairing declaration, “I am not a number. I am a person,” seems unpleasantly prescient.

The creep of mass surveillance has been going on for decades but has increased in speed and scope as the technology has developed that allows the state to follow what you’re up to. I first noticed this back in 2000. The Blair-Brown regime was exceptionally keen on keeping tabs on us all and oversaw a vast extension of surveillance and monitoring. In 2000, it passed The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) which permitted dozens of agencies throughout the country to spy on people’s communications and demand the surrender of documents or personal details — sometimes under threat of imprisonment if they disclosed the demands to anyone, with the added nastiness of putting those to whom they disclosed this under a similar threat.  Nothing — landline and mobile phone calls, emails, texts, internet searches, anything electronic — was going to be out of their reach.

Labour defended the act as necessary in the fight against terrorism and organised crime. It had to keep up with the bombers and villains. The usual excuses.

RIPA was just one part of Labour’s obsessive compulsion to monitor us. They allowed the police to install cameras on motorways and main roads to register number plates (NPR – Number Plate Recognition), without any parliamentary scrutiny. They introduced various so-called “safeguarding” legislation to protect children and vulnerable young adults, including the Criminal Records Bureau check (later revamped as the Disclosure and Barring Service – DBS), and notoriously, the ContactPoint database. This was means of amassing information from a variety of sources on every child up to the age of 18. To his credit, David Cameron, when he became PM, got rid of this scheme alongside the plans for an ID card. However, none of the implemented legislation and the organisations set up to administer it seem to have been able to prevent the long-term mass child-abuse perpetrated by Muslim gangs in towns and cities up and down the country.

But bad ideas have a terrible habit of persisting in the body politic, as if they were genetically coded. A version of the ContactPoint system has been set in place by the national socialists in control of Scotland — under the ugly title of GIRFEC — Getting It Right For Every Child. The original name for the legislation, before it had to be revamped to pass human rights tests, was the Named Person system, which refers to a key component — ie the naming of a state official to monitor the progress of every child. The scheme pretends it is to protect children by coordinating various state agencies, but anyone with an ounce of savvy realises that it is a blatant move by the state to control the population by intrusive surveillance.

The same applies to ID cards, another bad idea which has also made a fresh appearance, this time in the guise of vaccine passports (or “certificates”, if you want to be devious). Only today it’s the Tories touting them.

The woodentops in government and the civil service love nothing better than dreaming up new boxes to be ticked and more electronic ways of collecting data.

The number of schemes and proposals that have been made over the last two decades, and been either shelved or implemented, is testimony to the simple fact that the state loves surveillance because it equals control, all of which has become easier because of technology. The woodentops in government and the civil service love nothing better than dreaming up new boxes to be ticked and more electronic ways of collecting data. I don’t think there’s much altruism in their motives. I came to believe years ago that B The detrimental social and economic results of playing out this spectacle are rarely acknowledged and those responsible never suffer any individual repercussions. We can be 100 percent certain, for instance, that when the current Covid Panic is over Whitty, Vallance, Van Tam and others in SAGE will be awarded various honours and gongs.

The thing that added to my annoyance when finding out about RIPA and most of the other sneaky spying tricks was that the press never noticed what was going on, or if they did, said little. The only journo I remember talking about RIPA, for example, was Henry Porter — in The Observer, of all places! As for the BBC, forget it. The media have been failing us for decades and will obviously continue to do so.

If there is any upside to this dystopian situation it’s the knowledge that the state won’t really know what to do with this monumental pile of data. Most of it will be worthless. And more to the point, their implementation of intrusive measures is likely to be incompetent and self-defeating. The vaccination program has been efficient and successful, but the track and trace system was a risible shambles. The former is a miracle. The latter is the norm. Sophisticated electronic systems are susceptible to breakdown and interference. Complexity can easily turn into chaos. Not everything in society can be controlled in this way all the time. Humans are physical beings in a physical world and in order to exercise total control you need more than computers, cameras, databases and psychological chicanery via the media. Ultimately, you need the threat of physical force— that is, the police. However, at the same time the government is expanding surveillance, it is cutting back on police. An already stretched force could not cope with widespread disobedience for very long.

So let’s hope that the combination of state incompetence and individual recalcitrance by citizens renders their attempts to turn us into numbers a big fat zero.

suxcoverCurrente Calamo columnist, poet and writer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire. A Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Lincoln University (2005 – 2008), his poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent book is Albion Days (perennisperegrinator press). Sucks to Your Revolution is a collection of his Fortnightly columns.

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