Data day
 
Emma Brockes is being watched round the clock

Saturday September 7, 2002
The Guardian


7.30am: I surface on the radar early this morning. On the floor next to my bed, my mobile phone bleeps and jiggles with the arrival of a text message. "Still there," it reads. I text back, "Oh no." Before I've woken up properly, a small trail of data has been added to my records on the phone company's database, and held there just in case, at some future date, the authorities take an interest in me. The meaning of the message may not be apparent, but my whereabouts can be pinpointed to within a small area of north London.

8am: My flat is near an arcade of shops, where children hang out and occasionally kick the dustbins and rattle the metal window grills. Three sets of CCTV cameras roll: one covering the arcade, the others angled over the entrance to a block of "executive" flats. I am in the sights of the cameras all the way to the newsagent's, where I am picked up by shop's indoor security system. I crouch down to hook a carton of milk from the back of the fridge and for a couple of seconds, am invisible.

8.30am: Back in the flat, junk mail has arrived from Morgan Stanley Dean Witter offering me a platinum card. Presumably, they bought my name and address details from one of the marketing companies who raid vast credit and consumer databases for potential customers. Amazon, the on-line bookshop, has inexplicably written to ask if I would like to buy a holiday in conjunction with the on-line travel agent, Expedia. They have outlined four "amazing deals and destinations", which I examine for use of preference data, based on the books I have bought, eg: "other people who bought Anthony Beever's Berlin: the Downfall, also booked this holiday to Moscow."

9am: I get the bus to work. The crush on the number 38 feels deceptively anonymous - there is a security camera trained beadily on us from the ceiling of the bus. Outside, cameras read the bus's number plate as it lumbers by. I text Amy ("try lemon juice"). Entering a new catchment area of a mobile phone transmitter, it registers, somewhere, that I'm on the move.

9.45am: At the Guardian, a swipe card system clocks my arrival. I log on to my terminal; the system knows I'm at my desk. I check my email and find a message from Sainsbury's detailing special offers. My Reward Card, which records the intimate details of my purchasing habits on the Sainsbury's big computer, has put me in the sights of their direct marketing people.

10am: The day begins. If my faxes are being monitored then third parties know that I'm trying to get an interview with George Michael and am on the mailing list of the National Federation of Badger Groups. If my emails are being read, it's out that the avocado stain on Amy's shirt, referred to in the early morning text message, has been dealt with by the dry cleaner and that I have been asked on a date by a man who I spend a good part of the afternoon describing to friends as the size of a hay bail, with an off-putting way of sitting with his legs wide open hence his nickname, Crotch Man. Even if they don't read the juicy contents, my employers will be able to see that I've been using the office computer for private correspondence.

I delete these emails immediately, but copies are automatically stored in duplicate on computers in the IT department.

12pm: There is a cash machine in the building. I withdraw 50 and confirm, through the communication between the machine and my bank, that I am still in the office. I swipe out for lunch, and am seen entering a restaurant by CCTV cameras both in the street and in the restaurant. It is a moderately expensive joint in Covent Garden and I pay the bill by credit card, leaving a record that I've spent 45. Should the information that I have eaten there be shared with other companies, I will be a likely target for more high-end junk mail.

3pm: Back at the office. my computer makes a record of the websites I visit. The site owners also take the opportunity to monitor me. Discreetly and automatically, they place "cookie" programs on my computer to learn a bit more about me from my online habits. On the evidence of this afternoon's web-log, they can deduce that I am planning trips to Ethiopia and the John Lewis sale, that I have an Egg savings account, and from the frequency of my visits to www.dictionary.com, that I can't spell.

7pm: I go home via Sainsbury's and log another 60 worth of raw marketing data on my Reward Card.

9pm: I order a takeaway. Even the restaurant knows all about me, having stored my details on computer from last time and programmed it to pop up when a call from my number is received.

11pm: I plug my phone in and go to bed as, I assume, do the people who've spent all day monitoring me. It doesn't end there of course. Every few seconds as I sleep, my mobile talks to the nearest base station. Somewhere, the nightwatch begins.


 
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