At the wheel, at the till and at the computer keyboard we are all being watched. Here’s a few ways to keep your life private.
Britain is the undisputed leader in the free world at snooping on its citizens. We are watched everywhere we go: driving to work, walking the dog, shopping, taking the train.
We are constantly under surveillance, by camera, by the chips in our debit, credit or store cards. When we telephone or e-mail our friends, numerous agencies and private companies instantaneously know what we are doing and where we are doing it from. We can barely turn on a light or the oven without someone, somewhere, tracking our every move.
We believe that we cannot escape this casual surveillance of our lives so we casually accept it. But thousands of people are finding ways to avoid the day-to-day tracking by stepping wholly or partly outside the system and its control.
I spent a year travelling around Britain meeting people who live “off-grid” and learning how to avoid the invasive sweep of corporate data-hounds and sidestep the intrusive gaze of closed-circuit television cameras.
Four years ago there were an estimated 4.2 million CCTV cameras – the exact figure is unknown as there is no central registration system – but there are probably nearer 6 million cameras now.
There are up to ten on every bus and dozens at every station, so avoid London Transport if you want to evade the cameras. Most CCTV runs from speed cameras, which are less prevalent in the countryside. Maps of them are available on car websites.
Tinted car windows keep your face off camera but your numberplate will still give you away. Numberplate recognition computers are a classic example of “function creep”: cameras and computers installed for one purpose – congestion charging – are now used for another.
At night, use an infra-red light bulb to illuminate your numberplate. CCTV, like all video cameras, operates in that part of the spectrum near infra-red, so such a bulb above the number will flood the camera and is legal at the time of writing.
There is no legally enforceable code of practice on how these cameras should be used nor any widely accepted recording standards. Only one law governs CCTV cameras: for health and safety reasons they must be above head height – at least 2.5m (8ft) from the ground.
Since we are literally watched from above, covering the head provides a level of anonymity and privacy, as everyone who wears a hoody knows.
Just as intrusive as surveillance cameras is the use and misuse of personal data. Sometimes the two forces, government and private, come together, as in that delightful question on the electoral registration form that asks you to tick here if you do not want your data sold for marketing purposes.
From NHS records to store cards, utility company records to social networking websites, our data is being sliced, diced and resold. So how can we take back control?
For a start, you can swap your store loyalty card with a friend’s (once you have spent all the points) so that you will get credits for your purchases but the retailer will not know whose data is being collected. You can do the same with Oyster or other travel cards – the transport authorities will still have the aggregate data they need for management but they cannot track your individual movements.
You can switch from plastic to cash and barter and give or get free goods via Freecycle. There may be tax issues here – it depends which accountant you ask.
Utility companies are huge holders of personal data but tens of thousands of people escape their clutches by living without mains services – water, power, phone line or sewerage. By paying council tax they remain eligible to use the NHS and schools.
For town residents with an existing electricity supply, it does not yet make economic sense to cut off power. In the city the most common kinds of off-grid dwellings are boats, vans and tents in parents’ gardens. The last need planning permission but normally nobody bothers to seek it. Finding acceptable spots in cities to live full-time in a camper van is possible but not easy.
Thousands of people live on urban canals and rivers, paying the minimum £75 a year to British Waterways for a “continuous cruiser” licence. They use no mains power nor need to pay council tax, and so evade the growing army of planning officers checking on the size of your patio extension.
Back on dry land, it is possible to dispense with your water supplier by having a borehole drilled in your garden, however small. You do not need a permit if it is not for industrial use. It will cost a few thousand pounds but for a large family on a water meter it makes economic sense, as well as limiting the amount of data accessible by the water company.
There are ways to ensure virtual invisibility online. The off-grid community uses encryption to ensure that its e-mails are not spied upon by governments or criminals. Hushmail, based in Canada, offers a free service that allows users to conceal the source of their e-mails and encrypts them.
These codes automatically bring users to the attention of electronic eavesdroppers at the National Security Agency of the United States, which assumes they have something to hide (which usually they do not) but it does protect them from casual surveillance.
You can browse the web in relative anonymity by using Xerobank, which passes your clicks through an anonymous “data cloud”, hiding the data normally revealed as you use a computer.
Facebook, which is owned by Microsoft, was recently criticised for teaming up with retailers to discover what its members were buying and then sending e-mails to those shoppers’ online “friends”, advising them of the purchases. This was done without the permission of the individuals involved and often without their knowledge.
There are ways of setting your privacy options within Facebook so that you would not be spied on and “outed” in this way but the settings are hard to find. The simplest way of dealing with the threat from social networking sites is to use an assumed identity when you join. It may be against their rules but the chances of being discovered are low and the worst that can happen is that your identity is closed down and you have to rejoin.
It is more of an effort to live off-grid, requiring a time-consuming vigilance as you monitor your communications and shopping habits to ensure that you are not giving away too much information. But I would rather spend my energy in positive action than in merely worrying, which is what most civil libertarians seem to do.
Read and stay safe my brothers (sisters).