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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 May 2006, 15:19 GMT 16:19 UK
Is business the real Big Brother?
By Adam Harcourt-Webster
BBC Money Programme

Monitoring and surveillance of employees and customers by big business is now commonplace.

Money Programme presenter Max Flint with the Personal Shopping Assistant computer, as used by customers at the Metro Future Store in Rheinberg, Germany
Some German shoppers already have their purchases tracked

It's increasingly a feature of our daily lives, because businesses have found that it makes good business sense. But is corporate snooping out of control?

In Britain, we are all familiar with the CCTV cameras that have sprung up across our city centres and transport networks.

We generally accept that they are there to counter crime and help monitor traffic flows on our busy roads.

But how many of us realise that when we travel about, each of us is captured, on average, 300 times a day on CCTV, and should we be concerned?

Of course, if we look up, we can see the CCTV cameras. We know they're there.

But are they just the visible tip of a much larger and more deep-rooted surveillance society?

'Surveillance capital'

Dr Kirstie Ball of the Open University certainly thinks so. She believes that most of the surveillance and monitoring of our movements is hidden.

"It's everywhere, absolutely everywhere," she says.

"As we move throughout cities, throughout our jobs and lives, there are technologies and devices everywhere which capture our movements, capture our activities, which are then stored on databases as evidence of what we've been doing."

She is far from being alone in this view. "In Britain, we are saturated in a world of surveillance," says Simon Davies, director of Privacy International and a fellow of the London School of Economics.

A Community Cam data link in Shoreditch, east London, now enables more than 20,000 residents to monitor live footage from CCTV cameras in their own neighbourhood
CCTV cameras are now widespread in the UK

"Britain has to be the surveillance capital of the Western world."

For most of us, surveillance conjures up images of spies in trenchcoats standing in the rain on gloomy street corners, and of Big Brother government telling us how we should think and behave.

But the kind of surveillance that worries privacy campaigners today concerns us as customers of big business. Customers are constantly monitored and tracked, mostly without realising it.

Secret devices

Take the Oyster card, for example, which millions of us use each day to pay for our journeys when travelling on London's tubes and buses. Not only do the cards record payment, but they can also track travellers' journeys across the city.

At the RAC's national breakdown centre, callers can be accurately located within seconds, thanks to the signals transmitted by their mobile phones.

An RAC patrolman reveals that many hire cars are now fitted with secret tracking devices, allowing rental companies to follow the movements of their customers.

Businesses have always watched over their employees

"It used to be that surveillance was a bolt-on feature of society," says Mr Davies. "Now surveillance is part of the infrastructure. It's a design component."

For business, monitoring can mean greater efficiency in the work place. Bosses can see what is happening in real time and thereby identify what can be improved - or even, if they choose to, which employees are doing their job well and which ones are not.

A prime example of the highly-monitored work place is the call centre, where sophisticated software is used to log and analyse every second of agents' working lives.

Rufus Grig - who runs Callmedia, a company that makes computer software for call centre operations - explains to the Money Programme the extent of workplace monitoring. The call centre, he says, "can be a terrifically highly-monitored environment".

Efficiency check

In the warehouse operations that supply products to shops and supermarkets, more and more workers are required to wear computers which instruct them on the tasks they need to perform, as well as monitoring and recording every step they take.

Wincanton, one of Britain's biggest logistics companies, uses computer technology in many of its big distribution centres across Britain.

Gillette razor blades tagged with an RFID chip, on sale at the Metro Future Store in Rheinberg, Germany
Surveillance is now creeping into the way we shop

The firm has found that if properly used, the technology can bring big benefits for the company and workforce. But this has not been the experience everywhere.

Eddie Gaudie, from the GMB union, explains that some businesses closely monitor the productivity of their workers all day long.

He says: "At any time of the day, it's monitored down to the last minute, even in seconds."

Companies insist that these tracking technologies help to boost efficiency and cut costs, which is all to the customers' benefit.

"You can buy this argument that this is all for our own good," says Mr Davies. "I don't. Because what I believe about surveillance is that ultimately it is used against individuals, not for them."

No privacy

One new technology could mean there will soon be nowhere to hide for any of us. The big high street retailers are experimenting with putting tiny computer chips in their merchandise.

These chips are called Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags. Potentially, they could be used to track the products and the people who buy them, out of the shops and into their homes.

RFID chip as implanted in the arms of some regulars at the Baja Beach night club in Rotterdam. The chip gives them access to the club and the ability to pay for drinks without using cash
Dutch clubbers can have electronic trackers inserted in their bodies

One day, RFID chips could be on everything we buy, and it may not stop there.

Similar chips are also being implanted in patients in American hospitals, to act as minute ID cards and to track them through the medical system.

A world where everything and everybody can be tracked at any time, day or night, is a prospect which fills some observers with horror.

"You won't be able to hide from the system by closing your door or closing your curtains or hiding behind a wall," says privacy campaigner Christopher McDermott.

"The X-ray eyes of the state and of big corporates will be able to see through those, and will be able to see right into your very personal and private life."

Has business become the real Big Brother?

The Money Programme: The Real Big Brother, BBC Two at 7pm on Friday 26 May.

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