Friday, 17 January 2014

This article is probably a 'thought crime'

It may be 30 years later than predicted by George Orwell in his dystopian novel ‘1984’, but ‘Big Brother’ is now with us, and I don’t mean the awful Channel 5 ‘reality’ show.

Back in 1949 Orwell wrote of a future where there would be omnipresent government surveillance, supposedly carried out for the greater good. Jump forward to 2014 and the seemingly never-ending ‘war on terror’ is given by UK government and intelligence officials as the reason it is necessary for the state to spy on the people it is supposed to serve. Incidentally, ‘perpetual war’ was another of the frightening predictions in ‘1984’.

It has emerged that the United States of America’s National Security Agency (NSA) has been operating a system called Dishfire, which hoovers-up millions of text messages every day. We already knew the NSA and its UK counterpart, GCHQ, eavesdropped on phone calls and read our e-mails, but the latest revelation takes mass surveillance to a completely new level.

You might think, who cares if ‘they’ are reading my text messages: chances are ‘they’ won’t get any earth-shattering information from them. Of course, it’s true that many of the texts we send every day are mundane in content, with appalling grammar and spelling. However, Dishfire not only reads your texts, it can pinpoint where you are, through the GPS in your phone, and can obtain bank account and credit card details if you have ever used mobile banking.

In addition, such surveillance of our mobile phone use is illegal in Britain. In order to obtain this type of information, GCHQ would require legal authority to request mobile phone data from telecoms companies. However, the American National Security Agency does not require such legal niceties to spy on us, nor is it prevented from passing information to GCHQ, which effectively by-passes UK law.

Edward Snowden is the American former sub-contractor with the NSA who is now essentially on the run from US security organisations after leaking details of how they spy on the public. It is documents leaked by Snowden that have revealed the extent to which UK surveillance agencies are also listening to our phone calls, reading our e-mails and now our texts. According to the leaked papers, Dishfire not only allows surveillance of the texts we are currently sending, but can go back months and even years to see what we were up to.

Meanwhile, if you are unlucky enough to find yourself unemployed, expect to have your personal computer scrutinised.

As part of changes being introduced by the UK Tory-Lib Dem Government, Jobseekers will soon find it mandatory to use the internet to look for work. To do this, everyone who claims Jobseekers Allowance will be required to set-up a Universal Jobmatch account.

Of course, a large percentage of the unemployed already use the internet to search-out jobs, so what is the problem with doing that through the Universal Jobmatch? Well, for a start, in order to set-up the account an unemployed person must agree to allow ‘cookies’ on their computer. Cookies are small pieces of data sent from a website and stored in your computer’s web browser. Every time you log onto a particular website – in this case the Universal Jobmatch website – the browser sends information back to the site telling it your previous activity. In other words, a cookie spies on what you do, remembers it and tells someone else about it.

Worse still are ‘tracking cookies’, which compile long-term records of everything you do while connected to the internet, not just your activity on a particular site, such as the Unversal Jobmatch site. This type of cookie tells someone else everything you do.

Remember, Jobseekers are being told that it will soon be mandatory to sign-up to such an account. The Universal Jobmatch site is run by a private company – Monster – which has been paid £17.6m by the UK Department for Work and Pensions. Monster is an American company and tells you, in the small print, that information it stores about you will be held in the USA. The ‘privacy statement’ – actually a lack of privacy statement – on the Universal Jobmatch site states Monster can pass your information to anyone it believes should see it.

When setting-up a Universal Jobmatch account becomes compulsory, Jobseekers will be required to input personal information, which will include home address, phone numbers, e-mail addresses and possibly National Insurance numbers.

One way of getting around having to accept cookies onto their own computer is for a Jobseeker to set-up a Universal Jobmatch account while using a pc in a public library. However, a person’s job-search activity can be monitored, and if someone is deemed not to have done enough to look for work – based on their use of the Universal Jobmatch site – they can be ‘sanctioned’ for anything up to three years. Sanctioned means having your benefit stopped. The numbers being sanctioned has soared in the past year, resulting in more people plunged into poverty. For the UK Government, however, this is good news: the rate of unemployment is reduced as sanctioned claimants are removed from the register.

Welcome to the brave new world of state control, which, of course, is for our own good.

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