Be careful who you share your details with

Sian issues a warning against co-operating with field trials for the next census. After all who are

Imagine for a moment you are in charge of a government agency that is planning to collect personal information about every person in the UK. There are good reasons for doing this: aggregated, the information will help to organise services, housing, schools, water supplies and many other things for which the government needs accurate planning data. However, the details held about individuals are considered sensitive – so sensitive that they won’t be released publicly for 100 years.

Add to these considerations unease about an encroaching ‘database state’ and ‘surveillance society’, which has meant a growing revolt against proposals for compulsory ID cards, as well as millions signing a petition objecting to the tracking of vehicle journeys for a road pricing scheme.

Given all this, do you decide to collect the information using civil servants and in-house data systems, or do you contract out the process to a private company? And if you decide to farm it out, what kind of company would you choose?

Perhaps you might not pick a company that is so tied up with the American military that 80% of its business comes from the US Defence Department. And perhaps you might have reservations about putting this data in the hands of a company that boasts “our knowledge management systems transform disparate data into actionable intelligence” or claims that its “heritage of delivering information superiority to the warfighter is applied to complex mission critical programmes in homeland security”. But (you will have guessed by now) that’s exactly what the UK Office of National Statistics is doing with the next national census.

This weekend, on 13th May, field trials for the next census in 2011 will take place in five areas of England and Wales. These will involve two potential contractors, and one of these is Lockheed Martin: the biggest defence contractor in the world; manufacturer of land mines, depleted uranium shells and Trident missiles; provider of freelance interrogators for Guantanamo Bay; and self-proclaimed master of ‘integrated threat information’.

As an all-round opponent of the arms trade, supporting companies like this with public contracts alarms me enough already. However, the really worrying thing is the fact that the information being collected in the next census – including new questions on sources of income and place of birth (to help monitor immigration) – would be ideal fodder for the kind of anti-terror analyses being carried out by Lockheed, and could lead to a faraway database identifying thousands of us as potential ‘threats’.

Precisely this kind of analysis was run by NASA in 2001, using 5 million records from the US census which were provided by the Census Bureau itself, when it was trying to develop a terrorist screening system for airline passengers. This prompted protests by the American Civil Liberties Union, who told the Washington Times the release of census data to NASA was “a major breach of trust.”

I’m sure the government’s contract with Lockheed will include a promise not to take the data and use it for these purposes. But, in an age when even my keyring can hold two gigabytes of data, I think it will take a lot more than that to convince people their details will be safe. Not using an American arms company to run the census would be a start.

This is an important point. A fundamental tenet of census-taking is that the people filling in the forms should trust that they are doing so in privacy in order that they will give accurate information. Involving a company with the dubious connections of Lockheed Martin could easily undermine public confidence, and undermine the worth of the information collected.

Before 2011, we aim to do a lot to raise awareness of this issue. A similar campaign in Canada by privacy groups and progressive MPs before their 2006 census (in which Lockheed Martin was also involved) didn’t get the company replaced, but did help persuade Statistics Canada to change the contract to ensure that company employees only handled software and hardware and didn’t have access to the actual census data. The campaign also helped create a government task force specifically charged with monitoring privacy issues around the census.

For now, Greens in the five areas covered by this week’s trial run (Camden, Bath and East Somerset, Carmarthenshire, Stoke on Trent and Liverpool) are calling on people to boycott the test by not filling in their forms. Unlike the eventual census – where there is a legal obligation to take part – the test is voluntary and widespread non-participation would send a signal to the government that we want more controls on who processes information about us.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.