Profiling and the database state


In the late eighteenth century, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham designed the Panopticon — a prison where the guards could observe every prisoner without the prisoners being able to tell if they were being observed or not. The heart of Bentham’s concept was the creation of a “sentiment of an invisible omniscience“, but his prison was never built.

Still from Pet Shop Boys 'Integral' video courtesy of The Rumpus RoomIn the early twenty-first century, the ‘database state’ is the growing tendency to try to use computers to manage society by watching people. There are many interlocking government plans that do this. Together they mean officials poking into your private life more than ever before, with Panopticon-like effect. The message is clear: comply and conform, be a good little citizen – you ARE being watched…

The government name, “Transformational Government“, sounds nicer until you understand what is being transformed is not government but its power over you. Under the new regime you can forget all notions of confidentiality and consent — through “information sharing”, what you tell one public servant could be passed to anyone.

Ministers and officials try to equate government schemes like ID cards with store loyalty cards, but don’t be fooled. In the database state you have no choice. Your personal information is passed between government departments as policy dictates. In the endless hunt for cheats and rule-breakers, you and your family are always suspects. Everyone is. Presumed innocent? Not if a government computer says you fit the profile — and the more records on the system, the less reliable the system becomes.

Data entry errors, out of date or incorrect information — it happens all the time. No system is perfect. But in the database state, your government record is presumed correct. You are who it says you are and until you’ve waded through all the forms and red tape, provided proof in triplicate and managed to convince omnipotent officials that they are wrong, you WILL suffer the consequences. The system only works if it denies people freedom to travel, access to benefits or jobs. No excuses, no exceptions — if the computer says ‘NO’, you must be invalid.

The tighter the control it tries to exert, the more arbitary the effects. ‘Feature creep’ and unintended consequences encroach ever deeper into your private life. Given the government’s appalling record managing large IT projects, its blatant disregard for personal privacy and consistent undermining of civil liberties do you really think you have nothing to fear?

DOWNLOAD THE VIDEO [opens in a new browser window]

Stills from Pet Shop Boys 'Integral' video courtesy of The Rumpus Room