Big brother is watching

The furore around the Chinese government’s Green Dam software has raised the issue of the way modern technology is used to monitor our daily lives. Here, we list seven of the technologies that can be used to keep track of your movements.


Closed-circuit television cameras were first used in Germany in 1942 to remotely monitor the launch of V2 rockets. Since then, CCTVs have become one of the most contentious pieces of technology in public use. The government and law enforcement agencies claim the use of video monitoring technology can help reduce crime and improve public safety; critics argue that the cameras serve only to displace crime to unmonitored areas, and do not act as a deterrent. With more than four million CCTV units in the UK, the network of cameras captures the average person around 25 times a day.

RFID tags

Radio frequency identification chips are already widely used in supermarkets and shops for the purpose of stock control, but some people fear their use could be widened to monitor the habits and behaviour of ordinary citizens. At the moment, these tags, which are little bigger than a grain of sand, are embedded into pints of milk and library books. When paired with an RFID reader, the tags can help to provide detailed information about items, such as their location, or how many there are. Although most people are happy for RFID tags to be used in stores to monitor stock levels, they’re less happy about the idea of the chips still sending out a signal once they leave the shop. On a benign level, such tracking capabilities would mean a store would know that people in Hertfordshire prefer blue cashmere jumpers, while those in Aberdeen favour the brown versions. But on a more sinister level, it could also enable them to glean an unprecedented insight into our personal lives, and target their brands to us accordingly. To those people who fear a “surveillance culture”, the ability to tag and track everything from our food to our clothes would be the next step on an already slippery slope.

Telecoms technology

The recent election protests in Iran have raised some interesting questions about the technology used by the country’s government to not only censor and control the spread of information, but monitor the ways in which citizens have been communicating and mobilising. It now appears that some of the technology the Iranian authorities have been using to listen in on phone calls made on fixed-line phones and mobile handsets was sold to the government by Nokia Siemens, a joint venture between the Finnish phone maker and the German technology giant. Nokia Siemens said it believed the product was being used by the government to monitor calls, but some experts have speculated that it could also be used for a practice known as “deep packet inspection” — a process that enables agencies to block communications, as well as monitor the nature of conversations and even covertly alter this for the purpose of propaganda and disinformation. Nokia Siemens, rocked by this association with a repressive regime, have pointed out that Iran is not the only country using its monitoring technology — many Western governments, including the UK and US, apparently use it for “lawful intercepts”…

Email monitoring software

Who is reading your emails? Chances are, if you work for a big company, your boss could be keeping an eye on how many messages you send in the course of a day. According to recent research by Forrester, 44 per cent of companies read outgoing mail, using a combination of digital scanning software and real people. The primary concern for businesses appears to be the dissemination of inappropriate or commercially sensitive information rather than time-wasting, but with more and more distractions available at our office computers, from Facebook and Twitter to online shopping, many more businesses may decide to start monitoring just how their employees spend their work time.

Information-gathering technology

Gunwharf Quays shopping centre in Portsmouth shot to fame last year when it was revealed that surveillance software was monitoring the signals given off by shoppers’ mobile phones to track their movements. The technology allowed researchers to tell when someone entered the shopping centre, what stores they visited, how long they spent in each one, and what time they left. It could even tell what route they took, and the country they were visiting from. Although all monitoring is anonymous — it does not identify the owner of the phone, rather than handset’s unique IMEI network number — it raised some concerns from privacy campaigners. While, at its most innocuous, this sort of information could help business and shopping centres pinpoint areas of high footfall or congestion, and redesign the space accordingly, or spot a surge in late shoppers that could prompt them to extend store opening hours, it also implies that this technology could be extended to minutely measure purchasing habits and retail behaviour. Perhaps that scene from Minority Report, in which Tom Cruise is bombarded by tailored, personalised advertising as he passes every hording, is not too far away.

Targeted advertising

One of the most contentious issues facing businesses and consumers at the moment is targeted advertising. With companies struggling to find a profitable business model in the digital age, a greater premium is being placed on targeting products, services and content directly to people on the basis of their specific likes, dislikes and needs. Phorm’s Webwise technology is a good example of this new way of thinking — it works by scanning users’ browsing history, and matching keywords found in these websites to targeted adverts, provided by other companies, which match the interests of web users. Phorm has stressed that the entire process is anonymised, so that interests cannot be directly traced to a named individual, but that has still lead some web users, as well as technology luminaries such as Sir Tim Berners-Lee, to be suspicious of the concept. Sir Tim likened commercial traffic monitoring by internet service providers as akin to “allowing them to put a television camera in your living room”.

GPS-enabled phones

Most modern mobile phones have a small GPS chip inside them, which means your location can be pinpointed to within a few hundred metres by the network of satellites floating in orbit. Of course, most people will use this technology in combination with the mapping software loaded on to their phone to make it easier to find their way around; some phones are now so sophisticated that they can provide real-time turn-by-turn directions, just like a satnav. The inclusion of GPS chips in handsets has also opened up a new world of location-based services — now that your phone “knows” where you are, it can feed that information in to, say, your phone’s search engine to provide data, links and recommendations for local amenities for whichever area you find yourself in. The flip side of that, of course, is that with the right kind of software installed on your phone, it’s possible to remotely monitor your location for less innocuous reasons. Services such as Google Latitude and Sniff are opt-in, consensual examples of this sort of technology, although some worry that in time, these kinds of monitoring software will be commonplace and non-negotiable, rather than a matter of personal choice.

Claudine Beaumont