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PAUL STARLING'S COLUMN: BIG BROTHER IS NOT JUST A SHOW.

WHILE Tony's sunning himself in Tuscany a secret investigation is being applied to the whole government machine.

Well, not that secret because I know about it - and now, so do you.

Following the embarrassing leak of several Number 10 memos, a top firm of computer specialists is spending the government's summer break, and money, checking its complex computer system.

Their first discovery was our super-efficient, info-control-freak government was as leaky as an old rusty sieve.

And they also found almost any enthusiastic hacker could cut across highly-confidential government e-mails. There are now some creeping fears about the way technology is taking over.

Let me give you a couple of examples.

Did you know that our liberalminded Home Secretary Jack Straw is signing bugging, phone-tapping, and letter-opening warrants at a rate that surprises even the security services?

Straw, you will remember, was very big on Britain having its own Freedom of Information Act.

No-one could have known he meant freedom to access information on you. The government's own figures show Straw last year allowed 1,645 telephones to be tapped.

And that overall his bugging, tapping and letter-opening antics are 60 per cent higher than those of the last Tory Home Secretary Michael Howard - considered a right-wing security freak.

One crumb of comfort is that all of this is in the public arena thanks to the watchful eye of Lord Nolan, the Commissioner appointed to make the government accountable.

But there are other developments you'll know nothing about.

In your wallet or purse are pieces of plastic more effective than the most sophisticated tracking device. Let me explain.

Every time you use a credit or debit card a system called EFTPOS records what you spend, on what, where and so on.

EFTPOS, The Electronic Fund Transfer Point of Sale, system charts your movements and gives a profile of your lifestyle. If the security services request it, and our Jack agrees, then they get a print-out.

Also, your telephone bill details who you speak to, when, and for how long.

The National Police Network Centre has powerful software which can trawl phone records to establish "friendship networks" of anyone they deem "suspicious".

And how about your computer? The government has set up a centre which can track every computer log-on you make.

The network is called Echelon, and the national intelligence agencies keep a permanent record of internet traffic using key-words.

Outside home you are followed by one of the half a million closed circuit television cameras in operation, many linked to the national police computer.

Within a decade we will have ID cards in Britain, a national digital surveillance grid, and a DNA database linked to a web of computers across Europe to be shared by governments and corporations.

With every human advance, there is always a downside.

The upside is I found most of the information you have just read on the internet as well as on government websites.

So while they are watching us. We can also watch them.
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Starling, Paul
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Aug 18, 2000
Words:500
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