Why the Greens should love Big Brother

Our ever-watched society is good news for the environment.

Last month, Lord Alan Sugar’s digital signage business Amscreen launched the OptimEyes system; screens that will watch you as you watch them - analysing your face and recording your age, gender and location.  This is the latest advance in technology that generates more and more insights into what makes us tick – the holy grail for market-hungry brand managers.

Whilst this might feel invasive and evoke images of a big brother society, there’s a flip-side to this abundance of information: the exponential growth of digital processing power seen over the last decade is also giving global citizens access to knowledge that in the past brands probably would have preferred remained buried in complex, global supply chains.

For instance, mobile phone apps such as Barcoo have pioneered bringing information about everyday products to European smartphone users through the simple scan of a barcode.

Going one step further is Carrotmob, a digital platform that allows individuals to come together in groups to spend money to support a business in return for them making an improvement that people care about.

Then there are businesses such as Honest By, who claim to be the world’s first 100 per cent transparent business.  Established by designer Bruno Pieter, the site sells fashion items where full details of sources, cost and even retail mark-up are freely available.

So, why is this move towards ultra-transparency good news for sustainability? Two key reasons. First - by giving civil society a voice, digital platforms are allowing debates about important social issues, which in turn are encouraging businesses to be more accountable as they realise the sheer impossibility of controlling their messages.  Last year, the sponsors of the 2012 Olympic Games wanted to tell the world how proud they were to support the Olympics.  Campaigning platform 38 Degrees wanted to tell the world how these blue chip companies were choosing to take a (legal) tax break.  Guess whose voice won?

Secondly, ultra-transparency is prompting business to scrutinise what really happens in their supply chain.  This can only be a good thing, if in the future it prevents bute-tainted horsemeat from being added to beef products heading for human consumption. The Sustainability Consortium (TSC), for example, brings together diverse global players like retail giant Walmart and many other household names to develop transparent methodologies and strategies for a new generation of products which address environmental, social and economic challenges. 

Of course, digitally-driven campaigns have their detractors.  There are those who believe it is nothing short of dangerous to use social media to create policy.  Avaaz.org is a digital campaigning community which attracted 2,419,077 signatories in just 36 hours supporting an EU-wide ban of neonicotinoid pesticides, linked to the dramatic fall in bee populations globally.  Enraged experts, including the United Kingdom’s National Farmers Union, warned of catastrophic crop losses without the pesticide.

This is, of course, the point about sustainability. It is complex and there often isn’t one "right" answer - a set of interventions are needed to truly solve a problem.

At Forum for the Future, we describe a sustainable business as one that is commercially successful and delivers goods and services that have a social value - all within environmental limits (or one planet’s worth of resources, not the current three in the UK, five in the US).  Whilst Lord Sugar’s OptimEyes might feel like a step closer to losing the personal data we hold dear, radical transparency is overall a positive driver towards this. 

By driving companies to assume responsibility for aspects of their supply chain which previously they may have been content to leave with suppliers at best - hidden at worst - we will see standards rise. And as the voice of the general public gets louder, businesses will be encouraged to deliver on their wider responsibilities to both society and the environment.

With more people watching, business become more accountable. Photograph: Getty Images

Sally Uren is the Chief Executive of Forum for the Future

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There's something missing from our counter-terrorism debate

The policy reckoning that occured after the 2005 terrorist attacks did not happen after the one in 2016. 

“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department, says Wernher von Braun.” That satirical lyric about Nazi rocket scientists has come to mind more than few times watching various tech giants give testimony in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee, one of the underreported sub-plots of life at Westminster.

During their ongoing inquiry into hate crime in the United Kingdom, committee chair Yvette Cooper has found a staggering amount of hate speech being circulated freely on the largest and most profitable social media platform. Seperately, an ongoing investigation by the Times has uncovered how advertising revenue from Google and YouTube makes its way straight into the coffers of extremist groups, ranging from Islamist extremists to white supremacists and anti-Semites.

One of the many remarkable aspects of the inquiry has been the von Braunesque reaction by the movers and shakers at these tech companies. Once the ad revenue is handed out, who cares what it pays for? That’s not my department is the overwhelming message of much of the testimony.

The problem gains an added urgency now that the perpetrator of the Westminster attacks has been named as Khalid Masood, a British-born 52-year-old with a string of petty convictions across two decades from 1982 to 2002. He is of the same generation and profile as Thomas Mair, the white supremacist behind the last act of domestic terrorism on British shores, though Mair’s online radicalisation occurred on far-right websites, while Masood instead mimicked the methods of Isis attacks on the continent.  Despite that, both fitted many of the classic profiles of a “lone wolf” attack, although my colleague Amelia explains well why that term is increasingly outmoded.

One thing that some civil servants have observed is that it is relatively easy to get MPs to understand anti-terror measures based around either a form of electronic communication they use themselves – like text messaging or email, for instance – or a physical place which they might have in their own constituencies. But legislation has been sluggish in getting to grips with radicalisation online and slow at cutting off funding sources.

As I’ve written before, though there  are important differences between these two ideologies, the radicalisation journey is similar and tends to have the same staging posts: petty criminality, a drift from the fringes of respectable Internet sub-cultures to extremist websites, and finally violence.  We don’t yet know how closely Masood’s journey follows that pattern – but what is clear is that the policy rethink about British counter-terror after the July bombings in 2005 has yet to have an equivalent echo online. The success of that approach is shown in that these attacks are largely thwarted in the United Kingdom. But what needs to happen is a realisation that what happens when the rockets come down is very much the department of the world’s communication companies. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.