It’s been a fairly quiet week in the world of technology, aside from new iPhones and a giant iPad. Oh, and Microsoft’s hugely important legal battle with the US government about cloud computing.
As such, I thought I’d turn my attention to a Channel 4 programme called Hunted, which aired for the first time last night.
The premise - if you managed to avoid all the trailers you should be on the show yourself - is that ordinary people are suddenly ‘forced’ to go on the run and a team of experts tries to hunt them down using all the tools the state would have to catch a criminal: CCTV footage, phone tracing, bank records and so on.
The programme, while overtly a piece of entertainment on a Thursday night, is actually a timely piece of television that underlines the extent of the surveillance state in which we live and why we must do everything we can to stand against it.
This 'surveillance state' concern is not new. The rise of CCTV cameras has been debated for many years, while the 2013 leaks by Edward Snowden made the world realise just how sophisticated, and extreme, state surveillance has become.
Off the grid
But Hunted shows that, if you really did need to evade capture, you would have little chance of succeeding and that, more worryingly, the surveillance state really does creep as far into our everyday lives as we’ve always suspected.
For example, one pair, not really playing very well, are tracked through an ATM withdrawal, then spotted on CCTV getting on a bus on Brighton sea front. They are eventually caught in a bus depot.
The ease with which the experts - all former FBI-this and Met Police-that - track this information and clinically head off those on the run is breathtaking, while those on the run seem genuinely shocked and angry to be caught so swiftly.
Another pair just avoid capture after one of them, foolishly, makes a phone call to the father of their child, which is immediately traced. They escape their pursuers with minutes to spare.
A third, who seems set to prove the most troublesome of the bunch, is far smarter, and arranges to use a car not registered to his name to avoid being spotted by Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras.
However, getting to the car requires the use of his own moped, which is flagged on ANPR, and he comes within just a few miles of being caught. Thankfully, though, he evades capture and heads north to Scotland and drops off the radar.
Heading north appears to be most of the fugitives' plan, no doubt tempted by the wild, remote lands of Scotland or the Lake District to really ‘get off the grid’.
This is no doubt the most sensible strategy, but shows just how far you have to go to evade the long arm of the law in anything resembling civilisation, with CCTV cameras galore in even the most humble town or village.
Meanwhile, accessing money becomes a mission in itself. Systems flag up your location the moment you withdraw some cash from an ATM, which you’ll need for food, shelter and travel.
It’s a fun game, actually. I played it this morning, spotting how often my movements could be tracked and traced, from cameras to Oyster card logs and cash withdrawals. And I haven’t even mentioned the GPS-enabled, data magnet that is the smartphone.
Iceland terror banks
It's a fun game, yes, but also deeply worrying when you realise that these powers of surveillance and monitoring are so readily available to the state.
It shows just how vital it is that the use of such invasive powers is rigorously checked and measured, with stringent controls to ensure that they are used only in the most pressing circumstances.
We're always told that this is the case, that oversight is given due consideration and the powers are used with proportionate controls.
But it doesn't take much for this to slip and powers intended for one specific purpose are turned to another as 'legal creep' sets in.
In 2008 the government used the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, rushed through two months after 9/11, against Iceland banks to freeze assets.
Technically the law allowed this, as the government had ensured that the wording was vague enough to allow it to freeze assets if it believed that an individual or nation intended to undertake “action detrimental [to] the UK's economy”.
The government even made sure that it did not have to include the phrase “terrorism-related action”, as some had wanted, and this subsequently proved useful.
But creating anti-terror laws to freeze assets in overseas banks is definitely not how the government got that law passed and was never its intention. But it had no hesitation in using them in its own interests.
The Snoopers' Charter fear
Similarly, we must remain vigilant about the government and the laws it wants to introduce, most worryingly the so-called Snoopers' Charter.
The ballot papers were still being counted as home secretary Theresa May confirmed that the government would push ahead with plans to get these new laws in place, free from Lib Dem meddling.
The law would give the government far more power to force communications providers such as mobile firms and internet service providers to intercept, monitor, collect and store communications data. It will also give the security agencies more power to access this data. Oh, and they'd like to ban encryption too.
Of course, with horrific terror attacks in Paris and Tunisia this year, there is, sadly, an argument that there is a need for some level of state access to data in circumstances when it could prevent an attack.
But, what must not happen is that the government uses this law to create a carte blanche system where it can dive into the communications of anyone, for almost any reason.
Because you know that it won’t be long before the law, introduced to ‘protect’ the people, is turned against them and used in cases that have absolutely no relation to the government's promises.
It will be used to monitor benefit claimants, people who dare to turn a spare room into a second bedroom for a friend to kip in, or anything else where the government can point to the law and claim that it is simply uncovering wrongdoing.
However, what it will really have done is further limit and control our movements, and enlarge the government's control over our lives in a deeply unsettling way in which Nineteen Eighty-Four will seem optimistic by comparison.
And with such wide-ranging powers the chances the fugitives in Hunted have of evading capture would diminish even further.
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And all for less than £150, according to Keith