Not Saussure

November 7, 2006

Polly on the CCTV

Filed under: Blogroll, civil liberties, ID cards — notsaussure @ 10:13 pm

Polly Toynbee writes in favour of CCTV and ID cards over in Talk is Cheap, dismissing concerns for privacy and civil liberties as a ‘middle-class disorder’ ; when la Toynbee comes out with such rhetoric, by the way, I’m never quite sure how to take it.

Is she ticking us off de haut en bas, do you think, rather as my posh Godmother (a genuine dowager, and bloody terrifying she was, too) used to sneer about people who talk about toilets rather than lavatories ? (Not that I imagine many members of the lower orders, other than the plumber, used to discuss such matter with my Godmother that frequently, but it was certainly something on which she had views) . Or is this a faux class warfare, with Polly pretending to be writing for the old Pravda?

Whichever it is, Mr Eugenides subjects Polly to such a thorough fisking — his passage on Ms Toynbee, Gordon Brown and the Tescos organic carrots is particularly striking — that I hardly dare add to the fun for fear of inviting invidious comparisons with his brilliance.

Nevertheless, a couple of points. Polly writes,

As for CCTV, when Mori asks local communities what would make their areas safer, street cameras always come in the top three. It’s easy to see why: people on an estate I know say CCTV helped transform the only local shopping street, which had been rife with drugs and prostitution.

which, as Mr E rightly says,

is classic Polly; the seamless elevation of the unprovably anecdotal to the globally applicable, and all without the benefit of a supporting argument of any kind! This is the argument from anecdote, and it’s a mainstay of the Polly oeuvre.

It’s more than that, though; it’s classic Polly in the sense that she’s been too idle to do any research, other — apparently — than ‘people on an estate I know’. Had she so done — possibly by actually reading the Report on The Surveillance Society which, together with the Information Commissioner’s remarks at its launch, seems be what’s got Blair and, consequently, Polly so worked up — she’d have found all sorts of interesting things.

For example, she’d have found the observation (8.2.8) that

During the 1990s the Home Office spent 78% of it crime prevention budget on installing CCTV46 and an estimated £500M of public money has been invested in the CCTV infrastructure over the last decade.However a Home Office study concluded that ‘the CCTV schemes that have been assessed had little overall effect on crime levels’.

And if she’d then have bothered to look up their source for this, Home Office Research Study 292, Assessing the impact of CCTV, published last year, she’d have ascertained the views of some people did a great deal more than just talk to people on an estate they knew; they went and talked to a lot of people on lot of estates, both before and after CCTV was installed, and did things like look at the crime figures before and after.

And very interesting the results were, too;

Out of the 13 systems evaluated six showed a relatively substantial reduction in crime in the target area compared with the control area, but only two showed a statistically significant reduction relative to the control, and in one of these cases the change could be explained by the presence of confounding variables. Crime increased in seven areas but this could not be attributed to CCTV. The findings in these seven areas were inconclusive as a range of variables could account for the changes in crime levels, including fluctuations in crime rates caused by seasonal, divisional and national trends and additional initiatives. (p 8)

The significant reductions, furthermore, came not from places like streets and shopping centres, where they were nowhere particularly effective, but when CCTV was installed in places like car parks.

Furthermore, they discovered that

‘To reduce fear of crime’ was a stated aim of the majority of projects under evaluation. Findings from the public attitude survey suggest there is little evidence that CCTV achieved this. Fear of crime decreased in all 12 areas surveyed, yet only four showed a larger reduction than the control area. CCTV was found to have played no part in reducing fear of crime; indeed those who were aware of the cameras admitted higher levels of fear of crime than those who were unaware of them. The reduction in fear levels was more likely to be the result of less crime, reflected in reduced reported victimisation and reduced recorded crime. ( p 60)

Indeed, quite often, CCTV had the opposite effect;

These findings suggest, therefore, that the presence of CCTV in an area actually increases worry about crime, possibly because the assumed need for CCTV to be installed makes the area seem more problematic than the respondents had previously thought. (p 48)

Yes, the researchers certainly found that people were keen on the idea of CCTV, before it was installed. That’s presumably because they’ve heard so much about it; this government and the previous one were sold on the idea, presumably by the folks who make the kit, and have been boasting ever since about what nice chaps they are for spending our money installing it for us. It’s a very good solution for governments — people express worries about crime so here’s something obvious you can be seen to be doing to answer these worries. Doesn’t really matter that it won’t do anything straight away; you can announce you’ve done something by installing the things, and then when, a couple of years down the line, they don’t seem to be achieving a great deal, you launch another gimmick like ASBOs. When that doesn’t work, you think up something else. Blame the parents or something.

Polly also makes the spectacularly fatuous observation that, ‘if Tesco knows what I buy, I am having trouble frightening myself’. Quite possibly so, and Polly is more than welcome to her Tesco loyalty card. It’s a voluntary arrangement between Polly and the shop, after all, which both sides think is to their mutual benefit, and that’s all that’s to be said about it. Why, though, this should be an argument for anyone else having a Tesco loyalty card, or an ID card, if they don’t want one is beyond me.

Polly should, moreover, think a little more deeply about her store loyalty card. I’m sure she doesn’t need to worry about Tesco’s marketing department knowing how much she drinks — though, had she a drinking problem, she might well be a bit worried about what mischief some unscrupulous blogger who worked there could get up to — but is she particularly happy about people other than Tescos having access to this information?

It’s not a problem, obviously, that would need to bother a well-paid and, I’m sure, scrupulously honest columnist, but hows about the Benefits Agency or the Inland Revenue? It’s a little-known fact that tradesmen working on the black in some way are very ill-advised to buy their equipment and materials from cash and carries with which they have account cards, since these do get investigated by the IR and HM Customs. It happened to a friend of mine, who had great difficulty persuading them, after a quarter when he’d done very little work,, that all this paint, paper and so forth that they knew he’d bought — they’d got the store records — was for him and his brother completely to redecorate their parents’ house and, after that, his sister’s house before she sold it. You can see why they were suspicious, even though he was telling the truth.

Extend this — and as it becomes technically more feasible, the temptation will certainly be there so to do — a bit, and you can easily see benefit fraud investigators taking a look at the lifestyle of someone whom the computer flags up as living beyond her means on income support and child benefit. Happy about that, Pol? Obviously it’s not something that happens in her circles, but apparently single women claimants not infrequently find themselves subjected to all manner of intrusive questions about their sex lives in case they’re cohabiting. It’s certainly doesn’t take a great stretch of imagination to envisage someone having to explain to a suspicious fraud investigator that the reason she buys so much is that she also does the shopping for her aged mum and for the next door neighbour rather than that she’s doing a job on side or has a bloke of gargantuan appetites living with her.

With a lovely irony, La Pol returns in her finale to another denunciation of these bourgeois individualists, kulaks and the like;

There is some decadence in paranoid speculation about imaginary abuses when real social injustice is all around. Why aren’t people as angry about the galloping inequality in living standards between the 30% who will never own homes and the overpaid at the top who are fueling property prices?

I’m glad you asked me that. Certainly the paranoids at the Surveillance Studies Network, who wrote the report, are very bothered about it (para 8.2.8):

Using detailed personal and medical information in risk assessment is also of interest to both employers and the financial services industry. Although it is not current practice, the potential combination of consumer and medical information for credit referencing and insurance purposes raises major concerns over data accuracy, data use and fraud. Increasing both the quantity and quality of these data is a means for combating these issues, but this, in itself, has unsavoury consequences. Depending on how this information is used, the opportunities and life chances afforded to those who utilize and/or rely heavily on social services could be curtailed because they would be identified as ‘high risk’. This is also applies to entire populations in particular areas, through the use of geodemographic data, which, in the context of consumer surveillance, can identify and assign relative risk to entire streets, postal codes or wider areas. The risk of investment is therefore passed from the organisation to its potential customers or users (and their geographic location), though there is little indication as to the means by which consumers and their neighbourhoods increase or decrease as a cost intensive risk.

This already, of course, goes on in credit scoring and related fields, an arcane art about which I do know a little. Banks and other financial services agencies have picked up on the idea of valuing the customer; this doesn’t quite mean treating people as customers you value; it does, but so long as you’ve placed a value on them and decided they’re people whose custom you want. Most banks feed all your transactions with them back into a profiling system which helps them decide both what products they want to offer you and if you’re someone whose custom they want in the first place. If you fit the profile, then they’ll fall over backwards to keep you, but if you don’t, then they’re not interested.

This doesn’t, by the way, just mean they don’t want people who’re not such good credit risks — they’re actually not too unpopular, since, provided they’re not completely bad news, you can usually make money from them by offering them credit at sufficiently high rates of interest to offset the risk. If, however, you take care not to run into debt because you don’t have much money (certainly not enough for them to be able to sell you any investment products) but, for whatever reason, you’re a bit of a nuisance, they really aren’t that keen to do you any favours. In fact, while they’ll do business with you, they’d much rather you took your business elsewhere, so they can devote more time and energy to satisfying the customers they do want to keep (like Polly Toynbee).

I said they feed all your transactions back; they also feed in as much other data as they can find. Folks like Experian and Capital One don’t just spend their time seeing if you’ve got any County Court judgments against you when you apply for credit; they’re busy buying up all the commercial data they can get their hands on (including, for all I know, Polly’s store loyalty card records — you’d be astonished at what’s on the market) and turning this into profiles that their customers — primarily financial services firms — can use to evaluate what sort of customer you’re likely to be so they can decide what sort of products to offer you at what price and, of course, whether they want you as a customer in the first place. Think of the way your post code determines the cost of your home contents insurance, only far, far more detailed and subtly done, using umpteen variables.

Pretty good way of perpetuating inequality wouldn’t you say, Pol? If your demographics and lifestyle peg you as a member of the underclass, this makes it that much more difficult to get out.

Not that that would worry a well paid columnist, of course; after all, we must have a continuing supply of material for our columns on how inequality is evil and, consequently, no one but an utter scoundrel would begrudge Gorgeous Gordon the wherewithal to eradicate it.

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  1. Yep. She’s barking.

    I didn’t read her column all the way through today – too angry – but I believe she cited our unspeakable leader’s claim that since we give personal information to private companies the civil liberties argument is unsubstantiated.

    The key word there – key to me, obviously not to Mr Blair – is “give”. We choose what companies know about us because it benefits in some way. It is not demanded. how worrying that our Prime Minister appears not to even understand the basic concept of personal choice.

    And I can’t help but think that if it were a Conservative government proposing ID cards, Toynbee would be up in arms.

    (As part of my diploma course, we have to write a piece of online journalism on online journalism. I’m doing mine on how blogging has affected newspaper columnists. One of my questions was whether the potential for instant correction on sites like Comment Is Free has made columnists more rigorous. It plainly hasn’t. [I’m not including Jonathan Freedland in this, as he’s ace.])

    Comment by Chris — November 7, 2006 @ 11:18 pm

  2. […]  Excellent essay on data mining in The Register.  This is the sort of think I was on about when I was taking issue with Polly Toynbee’s spectacularly fatuous observation that, ‘if Tesco knows what I buy, I am having trouble frightening myself’. […]

    Pingback by I have nothing to hide" - or the Sainsbury’s Lesson « Not Saussure — November 10, 2006 @ 9:42 pm

  3. […] have a couple of answers to Polly Toynbee’s spectacularly fatuous observation about ‘if Tesco knows what I buy, I am having trouble frightening myself’; it is, they suggest, not entirely absurd to imagine […]

    Pingback by Royal Academy of Engineering report on privacy and security « Not Saussure — April 1, 2007 @ 10:16 pm

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