Monthly Archives: July 2011

Would the “cop in my pocket” accept a bribe from News International?

Morgan Freeman in The Dark KnightThis week’s New Scientist features an article entitled Smartphone surveillance: The cop in your pocket (kerching). In it, a rather breathless Nic Fleming waxes lyrically about how, thanks to our smartphones, “we are all set to gain unprecedented crime-fighting abilities.”

Sadly, however, it is not through being able to download mad martial arts skillz via our phones Matrix-style but by using the sensors on our phones to create a near-universal level of surveillance. The residents of Boston, for example, will soon be using their phones to record potholes in the road (thus rendering the Liberal Democrats entirely obsolete). Soon we’ll be able to use our phones to spot GPS jamming and the cameras in the front of our cars to track down stolen cars. If only manufacturers would include gas detectors in our phones, soon we’ll be able to get early warning of sarin gas attacks without having to do a thing.

The civil liberty implications of all this are waved away. We are reassured that software will be developed to guarantee privacy of the individual, with a particular system called “AnonySense” being cited, although it is not at all clear how all the examples illustrated in the article could be used anonymously, nor are the rights of the spied upon (as opposed to the spy) even considered.

But it is not Big Brother that ought to concern us here. What I don’t understand is how this article can be published, weeks after the hacking scandal erupted, without even considering the scope for massive abuse.

Imagine making such universal surveillance just a bung away from use by the tabloid newspapers. How could you even go into hiding from them if every single camera mounted on every single car in the country was just a mouse-click away from a corrupt police officer? This isn’t even theoretical now; we now know that police officers are perfectly willing to offer these services to journalists, safe in the knowledge that both their superiors and the journalists’ will be quite happy to look the other way and claim they didn’t know it was going on. We can delude ourselves that it won’t happen again, but you can bet that it will just as soon as the dust settles sufficiently enough for people to start thinking they can get away with it.

So while it is terribly exciting to think of our phones working like the ones at the end of the film The Dark Knight, the real question is what we can do to stop it from happening, not how it might save us from future attacks by Aum Shinrikyo.

Ignorance should not be bliss for the commentariat

John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill: as happy as a pig in the proverbial
Thus far, I’ve been a little disappointed by the lack of open debate about how we might want to reform British journalism post “Hackgate”. By that, I don’t mean the discussion over what should replace the PCC (although I’ve seen precious little of that either, aside from journalists shrieking about the horrors of government regulation). What I mean is, a debate about whether we ought to revisit the ethics and standards which are taken for granted.

That opening paragraph was a rather hamfisted way of extrapolating my annoyance of Rachel Cooke’s article in the Observer today on the government measuring happiness into something somehow grander. Perhaps I shouldn’t, but I am concerned at how comment pieces in newspapers increasingly tend to make bloggers look good in terms of research and considered opinion.

The issue is not whether or not you think that the government ought to be doing this. What irritated me is the way the author paraded her ignorance around as though it were something to be proud of. What we get is not a refutation of the policy, but personal incredulity. And rather than use that scepticism as the launchpad for a discursive article looking at the pros and cons, we get a Google search. Not even a Google search in fact, because having just done one myself, I’m not terribly convinced that she got passed the first result, the wikipedia page on happiness.

Why do I say that? Because rather than bothering to look into the arguments of, say, Richard Layard or even David Cameron’s latest speech on the subject, the two authorities she quotes are J. S. Mill and Carole Graham. Mill can be found referenced under the subtitle of “philosophical views”. Carole Graham is footnoted in the first sentence of “economic views”. In the case of Mill, rather than actually engage with his argument (and he did write Utilitarianism), she merely offers a couple of quotes and a biographical titbit. This doesn’t suggest someone who has looked at the argument particularly deeply.

Twice in the article, she asks what “the people with clipboards” (clipboards? Pah!) mean by “happiness” and whether it means to be “content”. If she’d cared to done just one more Google search, she’d have had her answer: the first question the ONS will be asking is “Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?” – so, essentially, yes. But of course, if she’d done that, the overarching argument of her article, that “policy wonks” are busy wasting their time asking about happiness when they should be asking about contentedness, would have been rendered entirely redundant.

This is sloppy. Worse than that, it is indicative of a growing trend within newspapers to let their columnists get away with appalling hack work. In light of the revelations about Johann Hari, it is time the broadsheets started questioning whether merely reflecting the worst aspects of the blogosphere on paper is really something they should be wasting their time over.

How about, as a matter of policy, if a columnist files a piece in which he or she boasts that “I really couldn’t tell you” about what the article they are ostensibly writing about actually thinks, they don’t get paid? After all, isn’t the self-declared purpose of journalism to shine a light on the world? If it isn’t doing that, then what’s the point?