1984 and all that - my thought crimes

IT was in Norwich, many years ago - it may actually have been in 1984 - that I first noticed a strange phenomenon.

Aidan Semmens

IT was in Norwich, many years ago - it may actually have been in 1984 - that I first noticed a strange phenomenon. At least it was strange then. Today you might not notice it at all.

On a pole on a street corner was a curious metal box that I suddenly realised was a camera. As I crossed the street, the impersonal glass eye swivelled to keep me in view, staring back.

I felt violated, my space invaded. I would probably have felt so even if I had not read George Orwell.

Nowadays, of course, the blessed things are everywhere. For your safety and mine, supposedly. Yeah, right.

Everywhere we go we are watched. But who, exactly, is watching? And what for? I mean really.

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Every time you use your credit or debit card - and for me that's almost every time I pay for anything - a permanent record is left of how much, where and when.

Travel by plane, train, ferry or car - especially your car, if it's legally registered - and they will know all about it. Whoever “they” are.

They don't yet have access to your bedroom, lounge or loo. There are no Orwellian “telescreens” watching you in every room, no Soviet-style bugs planted in the light fittings. Your children probably don't denounce you to the Party for thought crime.

But if, like me, you ever let your thoughts out in print or online they're out there forever. All those stupid, off-the-cuff remarks made on an internet forum. Any rant to a radio phone-in. Every column I've ever written and every letter of reply.

They can tell, if they care to, exactly what websites you visit, every page you open - which means all the books, records or “adult” toys you might browse on Amazon or eBay.

That could tell anyone curious enough a lot about your tastes and interests. Even if you don't list all your reading matter and post your “private” photos on Facebook. They could jump to all sorts of conclusions about your political opinions, for example.

Now spy-masters at GCHQ, the government's eavesdropping centre in Cheltenham, want a central database of information on every telephone call, e-mail and internet visit made in the UK. Wow. That's big. And probably very expensive.

For that reason among others it may not actually happen. Not openly and officially, anyway.

The very idea has stirred up a curious alliance of civil rights campaigners, chief police officers and anonymous rebels within the Home Office. But the government's fall-back option is still breathtaking.

It includes the linking of existing databases, including those fed by police “safety cameras”, and the compulsory registration, using passports, of every mobile phone.

Tie together all the equipment and technology that already exists and few people could evade constant surveillance. Just the few with enough deviousness, technical support and motive to do so. Terrorists and organised crime gangs, for example.

You and I wouldn't have a hope in hell.

And as Jack Wraith, data expert with the Association of Chief Police Officers, puts it: “If someone's got enough personal data on you and that data falls into the wrong hands, then it becomes a threat to you.”

Whether the government and its spy-masters are the right hands must be open to doubt. Let alone any future government that might take over.

Whitehall mandarins and spy chiefs tend to value their own privacy highly, but clearly have no respect whatever for yours or mine.

As ever, the bogeymen known as Crime and Terrorism (and War when available) are convenient pretexts for the state to impose ever closer watch on its citizens.

I'm not sure if Jacqui Smith should be held responsible for any of this. It's just the latest step in an insidious process that's been ongoing since - well, long before 1984. And this step would, I suspect, have been arrived at whoever happened to be wearing the badge of home secretary.

But that doesn't make it necessary, inevitable or acceptable.

And all this is taking place in a country that is supposedly a bastion of the “free” West. How very ironic. How very Newspeak.

BACK in my badge-wearing days, I used to sport one that proclaimed: “Food is for sharing.” A fine principle, still admirably followed by my good neighbour David.

He came round the other evening bearing a great find he had made right by the A12 in Martlesham. It was a giant puffball, as big as a football. Too big, he reckoned, for his family to finish before it went off, so he was offering shares.

As I remembered the last one I found, nearly 30 years ago, fried slices had the texture of marshmallow and the taste of a good steak.

Which is exactly how this one turned out too. Wild, free, shared and delicious - excellent. I hope I don't have to wait 30 years for the next one.