It's not the technology it is how it's used

06 January 2001

The Great Technology Debate ...
It's not the technology - it's how it's used

Modern technology is great ... if it's used properly. It's when that technology goes out of control - when people misuse or over-use it and no-one stops them - that it can seriously intrude into people's lives and our basic rights can come under threat.

Take CCTV. It can be a good weapon in the fight against crime (mainly in a system's first six months). As long as that's all the system is used for. Take a man who, in the depths of despair, tried to kill himself. He later found Brentwood Council had (without telling him) passed the CCTV footage of his suicide attempt to the BBC for a TV show. Imagine being him or a relative and suddenly seeing that on screen.

Or the great DNA database debate. If the police keep your DNA and fingerprints after you've been acquitted of a crime - on what's basically their criminals' database - that goes against the basic idea of innocent until proven guilty. It implies that you must be a little bit guilty - no smoke without fire. Otherwise why keep your prints and DNA and not other people's?

Why not keep everyone's DNA and fingerprints? And while you're at it, save all our phone and email records for seven years - just in case they need to check up on us later. Big Brother paranoia? Not really - the National Criminal Intelligence Service suggested exactly that late last year.

Then there's data matching: using computer systems to search across records held on people for other reasons. The new Social Security Fraud Bill will mean benefit fraud officers can search your bank records, credit rating, gas and electric bills, and so on. They won't even need evidence that you're fiddling benefits - you could just be in the same group or family as someone that benefit fraud officers think is "likely" to defraud.

It's not the technology - it's how it's used. Sadly, that means that even really good ideas can have bad side-effects - like putting GPS systems in phones so when you dial 999, the emergency services know where you are. Brilliant - except that the technology can also let the police track you wherever you are, whenever you turn on your mobile.

You may not mind. You may not care how much information people have on you, or how they use it. But many people do - not because they have much to hide, just because they still want a little privacy, and don't want to live in a 'total surveillance state'.

Finally, for all their ingenuity, there's a real danger in thinking these great new technologies are the silver bullet that will kill crime dead. It's rubbish - you still need 'traditional investigation and evidence-gathering, for which you need properly-resourced police forces doing a good job by the rules.

But politicians want us to buy the idea that technology is the whole answer, not just part of it. Then we'll accept their quick-fix schemes to 'tackle crime' - cheaper and easier than giving the police the resources and reforms that would produce good, effective, fair policing. If we buy the quick-fix, then the new technology risks making fools - and victims - of us all.