With Christmas upon us, also comes the tradition of giving and receiving of presents.  This essay is not about presents but presence, even though present events present us with a few presents.

Our very presence is now something to be concerned about.  As the advance formations of technology manifest themselves, it is worth thinking about what is beyond the horizon, to the coming revolution.  We must consider our privacy and hastily produce strategies to prevent its complete loss.  If that loss seems inevitable, then it would make sense to mitigate the loss, by bracing and informing ourselves of our evolving environment.  Privacy and the ability to prevent the imposition of others spying upon our presence, is irrefutably linked to our freedom

How inconvenient to be caught, by excited and insomniac children, filling the Christmas stocking, taking the milk and mince pies, and drinking the sherry.  That little bit of magic that lights up their world is possibly spoilt by the creak of the stairs and a shadow.   How much worse would it be for Saint Nicholas to be caught on CCTV?   It may, of course, add some magic to the adult world, but that wouldn’t do, at all.

We are told that CCTV is a necessary tool in the fight against terrorism, and has always been used to fight crime generally.  There are laws such as those in The Investigatory Powers Act 2016 that should regulate the use of ‘bulk personal datasets’, but the Act was referred to as ‘The Snoopers’ Charter’, justifying another curtailment of our freedoms.

In the end, it would be a matter of trust.  How much trust is there left in this crazy world, none?

An abuse of power, an infringement of privacy and what can we do about it, nothing?

The estimated 5.9 million CCTV cameras are, of course, the thin end of the wedge.  It is disingenuous to call them closed-circuit televisions, as one could easily argue that they are anything but.  With the advent of smart on-line systems linking dumb cameras, the tracking of people is way ahead of people’s realisations and understanding.

Yes, but you say, there are lots of people milling about in public places, how could they differentiate between all those in red suits and wide belts?   Could it be the soft smile, the rosy cheeks, and the white hair?  Ah, yes!  Facial recognition.

The use of facial recognition systems, by the police in public places, has already been accepted by the courts.  The technology has been used for concerts and sports events where the ‘usual suspects’ have been identified.  But what of the rest of us?

It is believed that 500,000 people’s faces were scanned during South Wales Police trials.  But don’t worry they are only trials.  Again the excuse, ‘it is used to detect and prevent crime’.  Perhaps if we all lived in Orwell’s dystopian world there would be no crime and no freedom.

So we are talking of balance?  Whose balance?  Not ours for sure.  With CCTV one may argue that if there is nothing to hide there is nothing to fear.  Perhaps we underestimate the connectivity as we present our Debit Card or our ‘Loyalty Card’ while the ubiquitous cameras watch our every move?  Perhaps we underestimate the storage capacity, the processing power and the ability of Artificial Intelligence to single us out as necessary?  A cashless society is also one that records your presence.  To you, Santa, there is no charge.

As we are herded along, the corridor gets narrower.

This is a sorry story, and at Christmas too!

Lighten up, do not be paranoid, turn on the telly and watch the extravaganza of seasonal sensations.  Now we can access so many channels and films from our Smart Routers, brought to you for free, connecting fibre technology to our homes.  A sugary introduction to the ‘internet of things’.

Smart hubs are so clever they can detect your movement by bouncing microwaves from bodies.   Their sensing can identify individual characteristics with surprising accuracy even through walls.  “The data is used to provide targeted services and improve the quality of the service supplied”, of course.  With embedded ‘backdoor’ firmware they are a ‘gateway’ into your home.

Needless to say, these appliances can be hacked.

If your presence is monitored then others can know who is in your home, where in your home, and even what you are doing.   That may be good if there is an intruder, but the data collected will not differentiate.  Some devices can continue to snoop, even when people think they have been turned off.

In the ‘Smart Home,’ Father Christmas would have little chance of carrying out his important duties, unobserved.

Could we wear Grouch Marx’s facial props in public places?  Could an entrepreneur devise signal blocking wallpaper?  Perhaps silver-backed gowns will protect our identities.

How ironic that we hear of the present controversy between Facebook and the government, about accessing encrypted communication, given all the social problems caused by this media.  One would be right to consider the links between the communication of information and democracy.  There is a difference between information, wisdom, and love, but that is another subject.  This article focuses on presence.

Time for one exception.  Just when we have so much to do, the chore of writing Christmas cards almost seems too much.  A scrawl, sometimes just the sender’s name, but how good, so good, to give and to receive.  Little packets of love to say ‘I remembered you’, undetected, and without surveillance.   Just from you to me and me to you, delivered by hand.

Cue the drones.  No seriously, make your stand but don’t stand alone.

The cold, stillness and loneliness at twilight, on Christmas Eve, and maybe, the crunch of crisp new snow with the thin air.   There is a magic that cannot be touched.  A little magic is something we all need sometimes.

Have a Happy Christmas everyone.

And let’s all give Father Christmas a little slack.

 

 

 

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