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
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When the world seems dark and terrifying, we shouldn’t feel ashamed to dream of Utopia

Right now, the future seems dark and frightening and it is precisely now that we must continue to imagine other worlds and then plot ways to get there.

There are many cruel and routine lies we tell to children but perhaps the most indicative is this: if you tell anyone your wish, it won’t come true. This parable was probably invented by parents trying to avoid the trauma of not being able to give their children what they want but we carry it with us to adulthood, when it is repeated to us by our leaders. Don’t tell anyone the sort of world you would like to see – at best you’ll be disappointed and at worst you’ll be arrested.

“We want more.” This week, exhausted by the news, I dragged myself out of the house to a book fair, where I came across a new collection of utopian fiction by radical women. That was the first line and it stopped my breath in my throat. When basic survival seems like a stretch goal, caught as we are between the rich and the rising seas, hope feels like an unaffordable luxury. The precise words I used to the bookseller were, “Shut up and take my money.”

There has never been a more urgent time for utopian ideas, precisely because the concept of a better world has never felt further away. Right now, world leaders are deciding how many cities are going to sink before something is done to reduce carbon emissions. They are meeting in Paris, which very recently saw the opening scene of a new act in everyone’s least favourite dramatic franchise, “War in the Middle East”. We seem to be living in a dystopian trilogy scripted by a sadistic young-adult author and I very much hope that our plucky young heroes show up to save the day soon, even if there’s a clunky love triangle involved.

Dystopias are easy to construct: to paraphrase the novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, you might as well pick five news headlines at random, make a collage and there’s your plot. Utopias are harder. Utopias require that we do the difficult, necessary work of envisioning a better world. This is why imagination is the first, best weapon of radicals and progressives.

Utopian stories existed long before the word was coined by Thomas More in the 16th century to mean an ideal society, or “no-place”. Plato’s Republic has some claim to being the first but there are as many Utopias as there are communities that dreamed of a better life. The greatest age of utopian fiction was the turn of the last century and it is no accident that the early 21st century is a great age of dystopian fiction. The ideology of late-capitalist patriarchy has become so all-encompassing that it no longer looks like ideology. Fredric Jameson observed, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” – and the reason for that is not that capitalism is the inevitable destiny of humankind but that we have spent our lives being told that even thinking about any other future makes us ridiculous.

Most leftists do have an idea of the sort of world they would prefer to see. We don’t say what we want for the same reason that we were told as children not to tell anyone else what we wished for – because it’ll be awkward and painful if we don’t get it.

When I think about Utopia, I think about my grandmother. My mother’s mother left school at 13, lived through the Maltese blockade and was obliged by religion and circumstance to marry young, suffocate all her dreams of education and adventure and spend her life taking care of a husband and six kids. Half a century later, I can choose when and whether to have children. I can choose to live independently from men. I regularly travel alone and there are no legal restrictions on getting any job I’m suited for.

The kind of independence many women my age can enjoy would have been almost unimaginable half a century ago – but somebody did imagine it and that is why we got here. A great many somebodies, over centuries of struggle and technological advancement, asked how the world could be different for women and set about making it happen.

Exactly a century ago, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland envisioned a society of women in which production was communal, motherhood was valued, relationships were equal and rape and violence were unknown. Reading Herland today, it is striking that for every proposition that came true – women are now allowed to divorce their husbands and participate fully in political life – there are two more that seem as far-fetched now as they did in 1915. Motherhood is still not valued as work. Women are still expected to organise our lives around the threat of sexual violence. But all that can change as long as we continue to ask for more.

For as long as I have been a feminist, I have been asked – usually by grumbling men – when, exactly, we will be satisfied; when women and girls will decide we have enough. The answer is contained in the question: because the instant that we do decide that we are satisfied, that there can never be a better world than this, is the instant that the future shuts down and change becomes impossible.

Utopia is the search for Utopia. It is the no-place by whose light you plot a course through a harsh and unnavigable present. By the time you reach the horizon, it is no longer the horizon but that doesn’t mean you stop going forwards.

Right now, the future seems dark and frightening and it is precisely now that we must continue to imagine other worlds and then plot ways to get there. In the midst of multiple global crises, the only truly ridiculous proposition is that things are going to stay exactly the same.

Human societies are going to change beyond recognition and from the conference table to the streets, our best shot at surviving that change starts when we have the courage to make impossible demands – to face down ridicule and say, “We want more.”

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State