The end of privacy

Dangerous Data

Adam Lury and Simon Gibson <em>Bantam Press, 272pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 0593047419

Arthur C Dogg is a new type of detective - a data detective. He doesn't stake out motels, tap phones, or even leave his room. The disembodied cyber-narrator of this gripping novel of ideas relies on the information that he can "mine" from the internet.

Dangerous Data is a book that reflects the zeitgeist and pierces the heart of the dilemmas of life in an information society, where the average person exists on 2,000 databases, is filmed on 300 closed-circuit TV cameras a day, leaves a trail of data with every purchase he or she makes, and risks being "googled" by potential employers, or partners, or neighbours.

The book's innovative structure is a testimony of the end of privacy. Each left-hand page contains the raw data that Dogg accesses - legally and illegally - from phone bills, credit card records, company databases and the electoral roll, while each right-hand page bears his interpretation of the facts. By analysing this disjointed data, Dogg manages to piece together an intrigue of drugs, sex and suspicious deaths.

Dogg is interested in the age of DIY identity, where people self-consciously transcend the identity that comes with class, age or gender, thereby creating new personas. The apotheosis of this movement is the "identity tourism" of the internet, where people assume different personas behind the cloak of anonymity that the web provides. We may not realise it, but this construction of identity has become the primary characteristic of our everyday lives. Today, we literally are what we buy. As Dogg puts it, "Every purchase is a confession."

Dogg argues that the Victorian distinction between our public (citizen, employee, neighbour) and private selves (relationships, children, leisure) has disappeared as the public realm becomes a broadcasting site for our private lives. His is a distinction between internal and external identities - the accountant who thinks he is a poet because he writes in the evening. He refuses to read the content of e-mails sent to him, in order not to jeopardise his objectivity, claiming that the times they were sent and the patterns that emerge tell him more than getting sucked in to their sordid content. I wonder. Is this distinction not equally artificial? Are internal and external identity not intimately connected? For instance, does the conspicuous consumer love money because he has always been poor, or because he has always been rich?

Dogg grapples with some of the most troubling philosophical questions and undermines many of our cherished beliefs. He blames Orwell and his novel 1984 for making us fear the wrong enemy: "We could see who the bad guys were, we thought. And we fought against them, hard and tough. Freedom of Speech. Free press. Open Government."

But our defence against Big Brother has been so successful that we have paradoxically undermined our freedom by making privacy impossible: "The future is worrying because everything can be known. Everyone's secrets."

Instead of fearing a predatory state, we must fear our neighbours, colleagues and friends, who can track our every move. The information society marks the end of the stranger. Instead of living in a mass society where we can drown in the anonymity of the crowd, we are returning to the claustrophobia of the small village where everyone knows everything. Dogg calls this "the new Fall".

Just as Adam and Eve had to deal with physical nakedness, so our society is peeling back layer after layer to expose our innermost secrets. Dangerous Data is that improbable achievement: a detailed explanation of complex policy issues in the guise of a detective story.

Mark Leonard is director of the Foreign Policy Centre