Every day we appear on hundreds if not thousands of surveillance cameras throughout our towns, cities, our offices and public transport. Our everyday mundane activities – a credit card purchase, bank transaction, tube journey, phone call, paying a bill, seeing a doctor, clocking on, clocking off – is recorded somewhere, a transcript of our lives.
Filmmaker David Bond was one of 25m people who in 2007 received a letter from HM Revenue and Customs, apologising for losing his, his wife Katie and baby daughter Ivy’s personal details. He began to wonder what details the public and private sector knew about him and his family, and so he began to investigate, firing off scores of subject access requests – which require any organisation to release all the information it holds on an individual under the Data Protection Act.
He was shocked by the hundreds of pages he received, from online retailers, mobile phone and internet provider companies, banks, shops and government agencies like the NHS, the DVLA, and the Passport Office. It revealed the extent to which tiny details were recorded, including sometimes baffling notes – “Seemed angry,” one document dated 21st November 2006 records. “That’s more information than I have,” Bond exclaims. “I have no idea how I felt on the 21st November 2006.”
For children like Ivy, in fact, the number of databases that record them from birth and throughout their childhood is extraordinary. ARCH, the Action on Rights for Children campaign, lists more than a dozen: blood and DNA samples, the ContactPoint database of all children, social services records through the eCAF system, school databases like the National Pupil Database and Connexions, or companies like Bounty, which boasts the most complete marketing database of children and parents for firms seeking to sell them products.
Sitting in his tiny, paper-strewn office in Hoxton, Bond, 38, explains why he and producer Ashley Jones, his partner in Green Lions Films, created Erasing David, a film that explores the extent to which privacy in Britain is becoming a thing of the past.
“We are the third most surveilled nation in the world after China and Russia,” Bond says, starting from day one: “When my daughter was born they took a heel prick in hospital to take her blood,” Bond recalls. “I was interested so I asked, what do you do with it? How long do you keep it? They didn’t know. I realised that my child was effectively being DNA scanned, and there was no response to my reasonable questions. I was made to feel quite mad for even caring.”
Erasing David is not a straightforward documentary about privacy. “We wanted to make a personal story, so we thought, let’s have a chase. It seemed a really accurate way of asking the question: can we be private?”
The film follows Bond as he, rucksack in hand, attempts to evade the clutches of commercial private investigators Cerberus – two men who use every last piece of publically available information, and not-so-public but easily acquired, to track him down. Bond’s eyes stand out on stalks when he later sees their operations room board pinned with mugshots and notes that is reminiscent of The Wire.
He travels to Berlin to meet those with first-hand experience of the East German Stasi, the most extensive police state the world has ever seen. As his sense of paranoia and fear of being watched and found grows, a maniacal Bond even spends a night or two in a roundhouse in the remote Welsh mountains.
The narrative skips between his prior research into what lengths he would have to go to avoid detection, and hand-held footage of Bond on the run. We see his efforts to persuade his pregnant wife Katie that the project matters sufficiently for her to be left holding the baby for 30 days. In an entertaining sequence, we meet privacy expert and survivalist Frank Aherne who points out how anything from a mobile phone, a credit card, even a radio baby monitor which Frank hacks into from across the street, can be used against him.
Bond says: “It says something that we’re alright with a baby alarm broadcasting intimate conversations between us and our baby in exchange for the convenience of hearing them when they cry. And it’s always the convenience sell – nowhere is the down side ever mentioned.”
On the journey, we meet a young woman who was refused a job because of a false criminal record that appeared after a Criminal Records Bureau check, and a man who lost his job and reputation after his credit card details, having been stolen, were swept up in the Operation Ore child pornography swoop, despite having no charges brought against him publically.
“She had been caring for her disabled brother since her teens, and the place she was applying to and who refused her was the same centre that cared for her brother,” says Bond. “I don’t know who I was more angry with, the CRB or those people at the centre who believed it, as they’d already known her for years.”
Despite our “eternal optimism” toward state benevolence of the state, it seems we are constantly asked to hand over our rights, responsibilities, even our reasoned judgement to an incompetent state – one which, as Bond and 25m other families found out, is incapable of safeguarding the valuable and personal information that we entrust to it.
“Privacy is not something we necessary feel except in its absence,” says Phil Booth from the privacy campaign NO2ID. “Intrusion of the database state into our private lives is eliminating something that is at the very heart of what it is to be human.”
And certainly, being hunted plays havoc with Bond’s mental health, to the extent that a psychiatrist remarks on his symptoms of paranoia and anxiety. Feeling that he is being watched, double-thinking every action for fear that his hunters are lying in wait begins to tear away Bond’s nerves and sense of perspective. David Davis MP, former shadow Home Secretary turned civil liberties champion, puts it well: “The feeling that you control your own life is invigorating, it gives you energy. The feeling that you do not makes you cautious, makes you less than you were. Liberty and privacy are not abstract virtues – they change the nature of the people who do or do not have them.”
And while Bond’s wife, Katie, is unimpressed at the outset of the film, she too is surprised by what it reveals. “She was very shocked and upset to see the level of detail they’d gone into about her and the kids. She’s a big shredder now,” Bond adds.
[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, May 2010]