UpFront 11/20

Having a last look over this issue before it goes to the printer, there is a lot to take in. From Margery Hookings’ communication with local people overseas to Samantha Knights’ explanation of modern slavery, as well as articles about the local area and information on fascinating exhibitions and talks, there is a healthy image of local diversity. There are welcome signs of creativity, as well as humanity—perhaps even a snapshot of continuity in the face of such upheaval in our world. Back in April, in the early days of lockdown, I asked some friends on a zoom call whether they were concerned by the personal intrusion posed by the idea of track and trace. I had been told by an epidemiologist that a strict track and trace system could help stall the spread of coronavirus and make it manageable until treatment and vaccine options were more advanced. He had pointed to the success of South Korea in stalling the virus using personal information gathered by whatever means possible. As many of those on the zoom call were seasoned journalists, I expected at least a little indignation at the potential trawling of personal data. But the shouts of incensed outrage were nowhere to be heard. Instead, one simply answered ‘they already have all that data, what’s the difference?’ There was a little shrugging of shoulders and a conclusion that voluntarily making personal information available to authorities—who may or may not allow it to be used for purposes other than that for which it was obtained—would not be popular. I was reminded of their response when reading Paul Lashmar’s book, Spies, Spin and the Fourth Estate, before talking to him earlier this month. A fascinating account of the history of the intelligence services and how they have used and abused the media, the book also offers insights into some of the many activities agencies are alleged to have been involved in from the Great War to the current day. Paul talked to me about ‘huge warehouses full of servers’ with data on everyone in the country. His concern wasn’t so much that data had been collected, though that is a concern, but that there is little accountability and oversight on the organisations that are collecting it. With Google, Amazon and the Facebook group of companies gathering and utilising data that can help them manipulate people’s buying habits—and possibly their social and political activities—it’s not surprising that we may be becoming immune to the collection of personal information.