“Who’s Watching You?”, no-one probably

The BBC are running a show at the moment called “Who’s Watching You?”, hosted by Richard Bilton, about privacy concerns in the UK. Because it makes good TV, the show does its utmost to convince you that not only are you being watched right now, but you’re also being watched the rest of the time too. Despite the fact that you, reader, are in no way interesting, significant, or unique, you’re actively told that someone out there has a vested interest in what you are doing.

The idea that the BBC presents things in an impartial manner is just laughable – this show is completely skewed towards portraying all of the negative aspects of technology, making out like ‘big brother’ (and christ, how I hate that term) is watching you at all times. You’re told that you’re being tracked, that every use of your phone, your credit card, your tv, your movements by CCTV are all being monitored, building up a picture of your life.

See this camera? This camera doesn't give a shit about you.

See this camera? This camera doesn't give a shit about you. Unless you're raping a pensioner in a public place, perhaps.

I feel a powerful need to hold up a giant UTTER FUCKING BULLSHIT sign to help counteract this absurdly inaccurate portrayal. Yes, banks hold transaction data, phone companies store call data, your Sky box might anonymously transmit usage data, and CCTV might be in public streets and thoroughfares for a variety of, mostly security-related, reasons, but none of this means for a second that any of it will be nefariously used against you. Think about it – it’s not like someone is sitting at a computer and all they need do is type ‘Tell me everything about Bob Simmons’, and boom, they know all about your life. The fact the data exists somewhere doesn’t mean it can be easily analysed into a single, coherent profile. The fact that a myriad of different companies hold this information makes it near impossible to get it all together in one place, and even that would have to be after some kind of police warrant or demand that circumvents data protection legislation.

Assuming they went through this mammoth task just to get a look at all this information about you, what are they going to find? That you bought some salt & vinegar crisps at the station before getting on the bus to work? Horror! Privacy invaded! No, they’re not going to do that. Unless they have some extreme reason for suspecting you of something seriously criminal, nobody is going to bother working out what you get up to on a daily basis. You are not important, and the suggestion that someone has already collated your personal data, and is sitting on a complete breakdown of your life and habits is just a complete fallacy. It’s a well-used adage but true, “if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear”, mostly because it’s too much fucking hassle to investigate you unless there’s a seriously compelling reason.

The show also implies “Don’t search on Google, they’re watching you! They record all your searches and build up a profile of YOU!”.

Ugh. It’s just so stupid. Google might record the fact you’ve searched for ‘dogs’ and ‘pet chocolate’, and so you might get automatically generated ads for dog chocolate, but there isn’t someone sitting there, looking at your search terms and working out what you’d like. It’s a complicated and automated algorithm that applies itself anonymously to millions of people, purely for the purposes of showing relevant adverts. Since I never click on adverts, I don’t really care what they show me or how they’ve worked out that information, because I know it’s not really recording anything about ‘me’ at all. It’s all metadata, stored, analysed, with results returned all without human intervention or prejudice.

This guy actually purposefully has secret cameras installed in his flat to show how terrible it would be to be filmed without knowing it. What? Yes. He had cameras installed with his knowledge, and then expresses his ‘shock’ later when he was shown images from those cameras. The ones he knew were there. The point he was trying to make, I think, is something about how if someone did put cameras in your house, you’d feel your privacy had been invaded. Thanks for that Richard, if you weren’t here to tell me these things I’d never be able to realise them by myself. Remembering again that you’re a boring, average individual, how likely is it that someone is going to install secret cameras in your house? Please try to scare us about things that have a remote possibility of actually happening. Squirrels could conceivably be trained by the government to knife me if I fail to renew my car tax, but I’m not going to make any tv shows warning against it yet.

The big problem this show has is that it muddies the distinction between the ‘big brother (ugh) nanny state (double-ugh)’, where the government is apparently interested in what you bought at Sainsburys this week or how long you spend pairing your socks, and personal surveillance and identity theft. These are two distinctly different concepts but its just all mish-mashed in together without any proper definition. They’re too concerned with trying to scare your balls off about who is watching you, while failing to say ‘these are public data collection methods, those allowed by law, aren’t they scary?’, or later say ‘Hey now, these are private data collection methods, some are legal but you might not know about them, and others are the illegal purview of criminals’.

The poorly formed message obscures what are the actually useful parts of the show – the bit where it reminds people that they’re spack-faced morons who don’t protect their own data properly, and so leave themselves open to identity theft or having their bank accounts compromised. If the producers stopped shoe-horning in the ominous ‘sneaky’ background music, and the constant and annoying cuts to pictures of cameras overlaid with lens-zooming sound effects, they might have thought to give you, the viewer, a few basic tips on how to better secure your personal data. But that doesn’t fit in with the ‘scare you shitless’ message the show is about, and so is ‘conspicuously’ absent.

At best it’ll give those groups who are surveillance-phobic something to hoot about and stand behind, while once again failing to properly convey the reality of mass data-collection. Most businesses have a hard time querying their own, small databases without cocking it up, so the idea that the government could effectively query huge amounts of information about you is pretty unlikely.

The part about criminals and phishing is interesting, although for some reason they call phishers ‘blaggers’ and while they give a small example of someone ringing up on the phone trying to ‘blag’ private information, they omit the widespread phising on the internet. The only nod they give to the internet is that it too is WATCHING YOU in some vague but omni-present manner, oh, and if you download illegal stuff you might actually get collared by the copyright owners who log your IP address with their evil and unscrupulous surveillance techniques.

It’s just very poorly-done bit of ‘investigative’ tv, mostly because it’s all over the place, presenting inaccurate, scaremongering information in a disorganised haphazard manner that’ll just leave the average person feeling scared. Probably because the government now know they occasionally buy white bread instead of the healthier brown option, or that local CCTV shows you going into JJB Sports and coming out wearing a white shellsuit and chavcap. Admittedly, these are things to be ashamed of, but since nobody is actually paying attention I really wouldn’t worry about it.