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Green spies

Some months back I blogged a breakdown of the various fees that are added on to each airline ticket and tagged it "What we're paying." A commenter took issue: society at large, he wrote, was paying a good deal more than that for my evil flying habits, and I shouldn't be going to Miami anyway. He had a point. What's offending one niece by missing her wedding? I have more.

The intemperateness of the conversation is the kind of thing smokers used to get from those who've already quit.
Just how acrimonious the whole thing is getting was brought home to me this week when Ian Angell surfaced to claim that it is not really possible to be a privacy advocate and an environmentalist at the same time. Of course, Angell was in part just trying to make trouble and get people arguing. But he says he has a serious point.

"The green issues are providing a moral justification for the invasion of privacy," he says, "and the green lobby must take it on board as part of what they're doing. And the fact that they're not taking it on board makes them guilty."

I wouldn't go that far – I do not think you can blame people for unintended consequences. But there are a number of proposals floating around in the UK that could provide yet more infrastructure for endemic surveillance, even if the intention at the moment is to protect the environment.

For example: the idea of the personal carbon allowance, first mooted in 2005 with the notion that it could be linked to the ID card. Last July, environment minister, David Miliband, proposed issuing swipe cards to all consumers, which you'd have to produce whenever you bought anything like petrol or heating – or plane tickets. That at least would give me ammunition against my blog commenter, because other than flying my carbon footprint is modest. In fact, we could have whole forums of moral superiors boasting about how few carbon points they used, like we now have people who boast about how early they get up in the morning. And we could have billboards naming and shaming those who – oh, the horror – had to buy extra carbon points, like they do for TV license delinquents.

Or take the latest idea in waste management, the spy bin fitted with a microchip sensor that communicates with the garbage truck to tell your local council how much you've contributed to the landfill. Given the apparent eagerness of manufacturers to enhance their packaging with RFID chips, this could get really interesting over time.

This is also a country where the congestion charge – a scheme intended to reduce the amount of traffic in central London – is enforced by cameras that record the license plates of every vehicle as it crosses the border. Other countries have had road tolls for decades, but London's mayor, formerly known as "Red Ken" Livingstone because of his extreme left-wing leanings, chose the most privacy-invasive way to do it. Proposals for nationwide road charging follow the same pattern, although the claim is that there will be safeguards against using the installed satellite tracking boxes to actually track motorists. Why on earth is this huge infrastructure remotely necessary? We already have per-mile road use charging. It's called buying fuel.

Privacy International's executive director, Simon Davies, points out that none of these proposals – nor those to expand the use of CCTV (talking cameras!) – are supported by research to show how the environment will benefit.

Of course, if there's one rule about environmentalism it is, as Angell says, "The best tax is the tax the other guy pays." Personally, I'd ban airconditioning; it doesn't get that hot in the UK anyway, and a load of ceiling fans and exhaust fans would take care of all but the most extreme cases of medical need. It certainly does seem ironic that just at the moment when everyone's getting exercised about saving energy and global warming – they're all putting in airconditioning so cold you have to carry a sweater with you if you go anywhere in the "summer".

So, similarly, when Angell says there are "straightforward, immediate answers" he's perfectly right. The problem is they'll all enrage some large group of businesses. "You could reduce garbage by 80 percent by banning packaging in shops. We are squabbling about tiny little changes when quite substantial changes are just not on the cards."
And then, he adds, "They jump on airline travel because you can bump up the taxes and it's morally justified."

I am convinced, however, that it's possible to be a privacy advocate and an environmentalist simultaneously. This is a type of issue that has come up before, most notably in connection with epidemiology. If you make AIDS a notifiable disease you make it easier to track the patterns of infection and alert those most at risk; but doing so invades patient privacy. But in the end, although Angell's primary goal was to stir up trouble, he's right to say that environmentalists need to ensure that their well-meaning desire to save the planet is not hijacked. Or, he says, "they will be blamed for the taxation and the intrusion."

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).


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