Inspiring millions on age of internet

SO finally we know: it's the old man against the young one, the old soldier against the fresh-faced thinker.Whichever way America chooses in November - and there are strong reasons for thinking the vote will go either way - Obama and McCain both have one big thing in their favour.

Aidan Semmens

SO finally we know: it's the old man against the young one, the old soldier against the fresh-faced thinker.

Whichever way America chooses in November - and there are strong reasons for thinking the vote will go either way - Obama and McCain both have one big thing in their favour. They are not George W Bush. Or anyone strongly associated with him.

Bush has been such an appalling president, and latterly so unpopular, that that in itself is one big theme of this election. Thank heaven that's over at last.

The Clinton sideshow is also finally over, and thank goodness for that too.

Whether it has left Obama weakened or stronger only time will tell.

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But win or lose, Obama's campaign has already changed one thing about US politics, probably forever.

In the past it's been about powerful men with big money - powerful money - behind them. With Barack Obama it's different.

Yes, he's powerful - now. But he hasn't come up through the conventional route of power.

Bush had already been four years in the White House before Obama first took a seat as a junior senator.

To the Republicans, as to Hillary Clinton, that spells inexperience. But it could equally be seen as unspoiled. Untainted by the traditional Washington power game, the lobbyists, the pressure and barely-disguised bribery of big business.

Yes, he's got big money behind him. More money, in fact, than any other presidential hopeful has ever had.

But it hasn't come in fat packets from men in tough suits and the boardrooms of industry. It's come in the form of small donations from an incredible number of people - millions of them.

Obama isn't just a candidate, he's a phenomenon. The first real internet politician. Potentially the first Facebook president.

I have been invited, online, to support Obama. It's quite likely you have too if, like me, you have American friends.

A few dollars each from all his online well-wishers adds up to a very large sum of money. It also adds up to a potential sea-change in the whole nature of US politics.

Obama could be the first president for generations to be independent of corporate interests.

He has already inspired millions of ordinary Americans to take a more involved interest in politics than before.

Maybe, in the long run, it will change the game here and elsewhere too. Because if Obama succeeds - not just in getting to the White House, but once he's there - his blueprint is sure to be followed.

It's a blueprint for democracy. For making it, in fact, more democratic.

INFORMATION ON YOU - THE EYES HAVE IT

THE sign on the forecourt said: “We apologise for the short delay in authorising your pump. Our CCTV system automatically captures registration numbers and pump user images prior to dispensing fuel.”

A sign of the times indeed.

Registration number capture is nothing terribly new and I can see why the garages would want it, given the ease of driving away with a tankful of valuable fuel.

As for “pump user images” - well, we're filmed and photographed everywhere we go these days, aren't we?

I suspect the only thing really novel in this instance is the honesty about it.

But who really wants all these images? What are they really for?

And the petrol-station capture isn't quite like random street-corner filming. Most customers pay by bank card, and it seems quite likely those numbers are filed in the database along with the car registrations and mugshots.

Presumably it's all registered under the Data Protection Act. But realistically that doesn't prevent it from being used by, say, the police.

Put it together with information now obtainable from speed-camera imagery and it amounts to a colossal tool for tracking our movements.

One of the biggest problems with CCTV systems is the sheer difficulty of looking through all the images of nothing-in-particular to find the one event or person you might be interested in.

With number recognition (and associated face shots) a lot of that problem disappears. A computer database search can ping up times and places very quickly.

You can avoid being tracked by the older speed cameras simply by keeping to the speed limit. If you don't speed past, the camera doesn't flash you.

But by its very nature, the newer average-speed system has to capture the number-plate of every vehicle that passes.

If you pass the next camera too soon, you're nicked. If you don't - well, they've got your number anyway.

Unlike a lot of drivers I'm not against speed cameras on principle. I think they're probably quite a good idea.

And at the moment I don't know that all this information Big Brother is constantly gathering about us is necessarily going to be misused.

But I certainly couldn't be sure it never will be.

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