We really do live in a golden age for the collection of intelligence. Much has been said here and elsewhere about the interception of communications and how modern technology has magnified exponentially the ability of intelligence agencies to monitor the activities of its own and other citizens.
But the opportunities (or threats, depending upon your perspective) continue to grow. Today Apple activated contactless payment by i-phones and other Apple devices. Android devices are expected to follow soon. At the moment this function is limited to payments below £20 although that limit will be increased to £30 later this year. For certain participating traders the limit can already be much more. On privacy grounds Apple has been careful to point out that it does not keep a record of these transactions. However, it will collect certain other data including location data of the user. It may use this data for various purposes such as marketing. Apple may not collect transaction data at the moment but it may do so in the future and, perhaps more importantly, there are others who may gain access to these systems (either legally and illegally) and they will be able to obtain very precise data about individuals who are of interest.
I am ancient enough to remember how difficult it used to be to construct a picture of a target’s activities: Interception of communications meant bugging phones or visiting anonymous offices where letters were actually steamed opened by hand and packets were secretly examined using all kinds of specialised tools and techniques. Cash was always the ultimate guarantee of anonymity. You spent it and, unless someone found the receipt, no-one knew where you had spent it. I remember evenings spent studying lengthy account details and wishing that I knew where all the money had gone, not just the large amounts, so that I could understand the target a little better.
Then came credit cards and then debit cards and now even the smallest transaction will be recorded electronically on a database somewhere. It will be possible to build up a picture of every facet of a target’s life at the touch of a few buttons on a computer keyboard – an ability undreamt of thirty years ago. I’m tempted to say that the intelligence officers of today have it easy…. but of course experience has shown us that expanding the cloud of available data sometimes actually makes life more difficult not less.
As for the younger generation of users, many of them seem to think that all this electronic convenience is wonderful. I wonder how many of them actually consider the price that they may be paying in freedom for the few seconds saved in reaching for a handful of coins?
Of course, as long as they never do anything that upsets the State, they never need to worry….