Listen: Do You Want To Know A Secret?

Its the end of a long day, and our census-taker (let us imagine) has returned home, footsore and suffering from repetitive brain injury. He pushes open his door, and, as he steps across the threshold, he finds he has been transported to the twenty-first century. He stumbles over the crazy litter of mail which is splayed across his hall-way, some of it white, discreet and anonymous, some of it garish and excitable. He picks it up, weighs it in one hand, and - hardly pausing to take in the throng of electrical and electronic appliances with which his house has been visited - takes himself to a vacant chair. He opens his post.

Our enumerator has been invited to invest in a pension plan. He has been asked to subscribe - for a free, trial period - to two magazines, both of which vaguely reflect his idea of a pastime. His anniversary is coming up soon, in perhaps a fortnight, it seems. Already, he is being congratulated. There are three suggestions as to what he might do with the forthcoming birthday (to be celebrated by his motor-car). A selection of companies urges him to forgo the delight of paying his existing insurance company, and insists that there is a better deal to be had with their own, much simpler policy. Placing these to one side for further perusal (one hundred and twenty years takes a bit of making up, and he hasnt even learned how to use a tea-bag yet), he opens the first of the next shoal. A bank, a very reputable bank, is offering him - guaranteeing him, actually - an instant loan, a loan which will pay off, with one single abracadabra, all of his apparently outstanding debts. They will provide him with a flexible rectangle which will brush aside all others, and trounce every APR going, whatever APR may mean (it does not appear to mean April). Speed is of some necessary essence, or he will pass up the chance of a free voucher, to be spent at the haberdashery of his choice, or of a camera, or of a portable player of the most popular tunes he can think to whistle.

Several charities appeal to his better nature. They invite him to take out a direct debit, to become a sponsor, to fill a plastic sack (enclosed) with unnecessary belongings. A letter from the local police explains to him that he has been seen - and there is photographic evidence of the misdemeanour - travelling in excess of a speed limit, and must pay a fine of 50, or face court proceedings. A sachet of complimentary shampoo falls from another envelope.

As the weary enumerator contemplates this steadily-mounting stack of mail, which includes an absolute assurance that he is on the brink of a really considerable windfall, to which end he has been sent a golden key, cut from the finest plastic, the telephone rings in one corner of the room. Dutifully, he picks up the receiver, instinctively holding the ear-piece to his ear. A voice apologises for calling him, but asks him whether he is in fact known by the name (or a version of it) by which he is habitually called. He cannot deny it. In that case, asks the disembodied individual on the other end of the line, would he be prepared to spend a few minutes answering some questions about his lifestyle, about his marital status, whether or not he is the owner or the tenant of the property in which he is standing, what the average income or wage is in his household, and how long he has been living at that postcode?

Having answered all these questions - as it seems - correctly, the caller, profuse in her thanks, explains that he has the opportunity to enjoy a luxury holiday, at any time over the next two years, in a country on the continent. He notes down the dates and times of the hotel where the details of this remarkable offer will be outlined to him in greater detail. As he replaces the receiver, the phone squawks at him again. He answers. Is he who he says he is? Yes, he still is. There is a team of people in his very street the next day, who wish to demonstrate how easy it will be to erect a fashionable conservatory. He consents to their impending visit. When the third call comes through, he is too busy investigating the refrigerator to answer, and, by the time he has reached the phone, it has silenced itself. Absently, he dials 1471, since - so he seems to know - this will tell him whose amusing conversation he has missed. But he is unfortunate. The caller has prevented him from knowing the number from which the call originated. It is a secret.

He pads upstairs, and switches on his computer. After some winking and blinking, an almost preternaturally polite young lady advises him that he has mail. His hand reaches for the mouse, and rests half-gently on it, his index-finger dabbing at its surface. More communications await him! There are three messages (with peculiar titles) which urge him to buy certain pharmaceutical products at a cheap rate, most notably Valium, Zanaflex and Viagra, the last of which will apparently endow him with a penis beyond the wildest dreams of an average enumerator. Two separate gentlemen with a hesitant command of English explain, at length, why the fall of the Nigerian government has placed him in the enviable position of being able to render assistance - assistance which will fill his bank account, it would seem. Other messages, from representatives of companies whose brand names he has noticed on the kitchen appliances downstairs, advise him of the massive savings to be had in a sale of goods which is almost, but not quite over. Two messages suggest he completes a chain letter. One offers him a dodgy degree. One message invites him to investigate the contents of a site containing risqu pictures of celebrity women. And finally, there is a message from his ISP. Apparently, there has been a problem at headquarters, and they have mislaid his address, password and credit card details. Could he supply them again? Ever-obedient, he complies. Next time he switches his computer on (although he does not yet know it), there will be 150 messages for him, some of them blasphemous, or worse.

On his way home, the enumerator has been logged on fifty different occasions by hidden cameras. The world is full of eaves. As he has dipped and out of the shops, to buy some soothing foot-balm here, to treat himself to a comforting beverage there, as he has wandered through the shopping mall, oblivious to the throng of shoppers, as he has strolled slowly across the precinct, his head still seething with names and numbers, as he has crossed the road, his movements have been recorded on closed-circuit television cameras. The pickpocket who thought twice about rifling the enumerators pockets was captured in jerky monochrome; so too were the teenagers testing the handles of the car-doors; and so too was the stranger who looked past him at a solitary child, heading aimlessly to who knows what terrible fate.

And then there were the mobile phone calls he made, to other enumerator pals, relating the long slog, the doorstep strops, the impenetrable scribble, the scrunched-up schedules he has been handed. All of these calls were recorded. Not only were their contents recorded - so were their locations, to between fifty and five hundred metres (in an urban area. In rural areas it is possible to be much more precise). In fact, our enumerator friend could have been located - with his permission - by anyone with the right phone and technology which would identify where he had got to. Without his permission, the police could of course do the same.

The state is often - always, one is tempted to say - known by the name Big Brother. Almost before Orwells light had been extinguished, his creation in Nineteen Eighty-Four had taken root in the fervid imagination of newspaper reporters. The 1954 television version, starring Peter Cushing, who would later be more frequently cast in the role of the villain, rather than the victim, was seen, live, by an astonishing nine million viewers on a Sunday night in December at 8.30. Four days later, after hostile questions in Parliament, and a remarkable mixture of accolade and outcry, the two-hour adaptation was shown again - performed again, indeed, since the second screening was as live as the first. This Thursday night performance drew an even larger audience, second only to the audience which had watched the Coronation the previous year.

Big Brother, the menacing, all-seeing image of the KGB, is the apogee of a bureaucratic state which pries into peoples lives. He had his precursors. In Chaplin's 1936 film, Modern Times, for example, the nut-tightening tramp is spotted slacking with a cigarette in the rest-room, and ordered back to work by a manager who can see him through a two-way screen. The same sense of paranoia infests Lang's Metropolis in 1926 (a film set in 2026, incidentally). The Haves can see what the Have-Nots are doing, and chivvy them on. However, the idea of the state knowing who and what you are has not always been seen as malign. In 1905, H.G. Wells' A Modern Utopia was published. In it, Wells, who pictures himself wandering rather enjoyably through the Swiss scenery with an argumentative friend, comes up with an idea that could just as easily come from a government agency a hundred years later:

If the modern Utopia is indeed to be a world of responsible citizens, it must have devised some scheme by which every person in the world can be promptly and certainly recognised, and by which anyone missing can be traced and found. This is by no means an impossible demand. The total population of the world is, on the most generous estimate, not more than 1,500,000,000, and the effectual indexing of this number of people, the record of their movement hither and thither, the entry of various material facts, such as marriage, parentage, criminal convictions and the like, the entry of the new-born and the elimination of the dead, colossal task though it would be, is still not so great as to be immeasurably beyond comparison with the work of the post-offices in the world of today, or the cataloguing of such libraries as that of the British Museum, or such collections as that of the insects in Cromwell Road.

Wells quickly gets into his stride on this proposal:

The index would be classified primarily by some unchanging physical characteristic, such as we are told the thumb-mark and finger-mark afford, and to these would be added any other physical traits that were of material value. The classification of thumb-marks and of inalterable physical characteristics goes on steadily, and there is every reason for assuming it possible that each human being could be given a distinct formula, a number or scientific name, under which he or she could be docketed...About the buildings in which this great main index would be gathered, would be a system of other indices with cross references to the main one, arranged under names, under professional qualifications, under diseases, crimes and the like. These index cards might conceivably be transparent and so contrived as to give a photographic copy promptly whenever it was needed, and they could have an attachment into which would slip a ticket bearing the name of the locality in which the individual was last reported. A little army of attendants would be at work upon this index day and night. From sub-stations constantly engaged in checking back thumb-marks and numbers, an incessant stream of information would come, of births, of deaths, of arrivals at inns, of applications to post-offices for letters, of tickets taken for long journeys, of criminal convictions, marriages, applications for public doles and the like. A filter of offices would sort the stream, and all day and all night for ever a swarm of clerks would go to and fro correcting this central register, and photographing copies of its entries for transmission to the subordinate local stations, in response to their inquiries. So the inventory of the State would watch its every man and the wide world write its history as the fabric of its destiny flowed on. At last, when the citizen died, would come the last entry of all, his age and the cause of his death and the date and place of his cremation, and his card would be taken out and passed on to the universal pedigree, to a place of greater quiet, to the ever-growing galleries of the records of the dead.

Wells sees this as all entirely necessary, but he admits that there would be opposition:

to all professed Liberals, brought up to be against the Government on principle, this organised clairvoyance will be the most hateful of dreams. Perhaps, too, the Individualist would see it in that light. But these are only the mental habits acquired in an evil time.

He argues, however, that the practical anonymity of the common man is encouraging a rise in untraceable men committing crimes against women. In his Utopia, the government is most definitely on the side of the private citizen, sharing common secrets, and never divulging them to others.

Perhaps the most interesting inclusion in Wells list of information to be made available to the warren of clerks is applications to post-offices for letters. The privacy of letters was the source of major controversy in the middle of the seventeenth century, after the restoration of Charles II, a controversy that continues, effectively unabated, to the present day. During the Commonwealth (1649-1660), there was a huge increase in the number of pamphlets distributed, and also in the number of private letters sent. John Milton's Areopagitica (1645) had already cleverly objected to the system by which all books were required to be licensed:

If we think to regulate printing, thereby to rectify manners, we must regulate all recreation and pastimes, all that is delightful to man. No music must be heard, no song be set or sung, but what is grave and Doric. There must be licensing dancers, that no gesture, motion, or deportment be taught our youth but what by their allowance shall be thought honest; for such Plato was provided of. It will ask more than the work of twenty licensers to examine all the lutes, the violins, and the guitars in every house; they must not be suffered to prattle as they do, but must be licensed what they may say. And who shall silence all the airs and madrigals that whisper softness in chambers? The windows also, and the balconies must be thought on; there are shrewd books, with dangerous frontispieces, set to sale; who shall prohibit them, shall twenty licensers?

This had followed the passing of a Licensing Act in 1644. In an age when the printed word was seen as potentially dangerous, when the country was at war not only with its neighbours, but with itself, the State took the view that it should have a monopoly over the transfer of the printed word between one individual and another. In 1649, an Act was passed which explicitly forbade the carrying or sending by post of seditious information; Cromwell was no slouch in shutting down the official media, and applying a vicious tourniquet to the free flow of information. In the last years of his protectorate, a General Post Office was for the first time established, together with the office of Postmaster-General. The Postmaster-General was not in business to approve the designs of stamps. He was in office to restrict and control the flow of information. The ordinance which established the first GPO was explicit about this in its introduction - a single Post Office would be the best way to discover and prevent many dangerous and wicked designs which have been and are daily contrived against the peace and welfare of the Commonwealth.

The Restoration merely replaced this with the prerogative of the crown over the existence and exchange of printed matter. The new ministers took the new post office into their own hands, and carried on the process of censorship with vigour. All post was routed through London. The King was shown mechanical devices which could open envelopes, take impressions of letters in sixty seconds flat. Code-breakers were employed to crack cyphers. Local postmasters were recruited into what was, effectively, a national network of spies (many postmasters were also innkeepers, and well-placed to pass on information). Big Brother Charles, however, had also approved a proclamation which ruled out anyone opening letters or packets unless the Principal Secretary Of State approved a warrant. The left hand knew exactly what the right hand was doing. For good measure, only one newspaper (The London Gazette, a sort of Restoration Pravda) was allowed to circulate until 1688, the year of Charles' death.(1)

Predictably, communication was forced underground. A tradition of opening the mail in the national interest has been in existence ever since; and it has without doubt helped to fuel the anxiety expressed about census-taking, and all other surveys, not least because, in the early nineteenth century, the practice of surveillance became ever more widespread. There existed a general fiction in government. The state believed that it had the right to trespass on the messages sent between its citizens, whilst maintaining that any such trespass was severely regulated, and highly restricted. The original censors were Roman officials who combined census-taking with upholding standards of behaviour. Although the words census and censor had drifted apart, there was plenty in the public mind to continue to keep them together.

Nothing illustrates the casual extent of the practice of letter interception in the era of the Chartists and the Communist Manifesto better than the case of Sir James Graham. Graham was Home Secretary in 1844, and the charge was levied against him - by the Italian revolutionary, Giuseppe Mazzini, by Christmas Carol engraver William Linton, and by others - that he had systematically instructed their mail to be opened. Graham admitted it. In doing so, Graham was merely following the practice of all his predecessors since the Restoration, and also, in this case, obeying the request of the Foreign Secretary, Lord Aberdeen. Aberdeen, however, kept his tongue clamped, while Graham artlessly confessed. There was an outcry which did little for Grahams flimsy reputation; and the matter was referred to a committee of nine parliamentarians. After debating the matter in secret for some months, they actually exonerated Graham. It was indeed the right of a Home Secretary to tamper with the post.

Telephone conversations were for a while, even fairer game. Indeed, until 1937, the Post Office was completely at liberty to enable the police to listen into conversations on the phone. There were no regulations to forbid it. Only then did a conference between the Postmaster-General and the Home Secretary put phone-calls on the same basis as letters - the Home Secretary was required to give permission.

In the post-war era, at least according to the official versions, telephone tapping was relatively unusual (there was a little spate in the early 1950s, in an effort to curb the spread of illegal lotteries). But in 1957, there was a case which created some of the same kind of resonance in the public ear as the Mazzini case, a century earlier. One of the post-war criminal names was Billy Hill. Hill was a petty thug and thief who liked to style himself King Of The Underworld, and who fell out with his fellow King, Jack Spot Comer. The two had had an alliance which fell apart at the seams, most particularly when Hill sent two of his personal heavies to slash Comers face. (One of the pair was Mad Frankie Fraser, who now makes a living regaling audiences like the Oxford Union with jolly tales of his gangland past). The attack pulled both Hill and Comer from their perches, leaving space, in due course, for the Krays.

At the time, Billy Hills barrister was Patrick Marrinan. Marrinan was under investigation by the Bar Council for professional misconduct (and was later disbarred). The Bar Council approached the police. Had they any information which might support the allegations against Marrinan? Indeed they had. Billy Hills phone had been tapped, and the then Home Secretary - Gwilym Lloyd George - happily passed transcripts to the Bar Council chairman, Hartley Shawcross. The newspapers seized on this breach of privacy, and the House of Commons taxed the new Home Secretary (Rab Butler) with the apparent outbreak of big-brothering. Butler swatted away the complaint. He announced that there was good reason in this instance, that it was not a precedent of any sort, and that a committee of three parliamentarians, headed by Lord Birkett, would produce a report. The Birkett report was as bland as low-grade whitewash. While not quite supporting the phone-tap, it did not care to suggest that it was unreasonable. Perhaps it might have been better had the responsible Home Secretary followed the procedure more carefully.

Most importantly, the Birkett Committee appeared to clear one thing up. Yes, Home Secretaries were permitted to authorise the tapping of phones, in the same way as they could authorise the opening of letters. Any lingering doubt about the validity of the procedure was swished away. Several benefits were mentioned: the recapture of convicts; the arrest of Billy Hills associates (Billy Hill had bought himself a villa in Spain by this time); the conviction of a smuggler; the detection of Communists in the Civil Service... A table was published, with figures from 1937 to 1956, although the committee was strongly of the opinion that such figures should not be released again, since they might assist enemies of the State. The table suggested that there had been an annual average of 130 telephone interceptions over the two decades, and that about 500 letters a year had been opened. One of the three members, Patrick Gordon Walker - later Labours Foreign Secretary - expressed a minority opinion. He felt the power should be restricted, and that its exercise would reduce popular support for the police.

About ten years later, Harold Wilson was asked, as prime minister, how many phone-taps had been carried out. The Birkett report was invaluable to his answer. He wheeled out its recommendation that tables and figures of this sort should not be published, whilst promising that no member of parliament had had his or her phone tapped since the arrival of the Labour Party in power in 1964. (A cunning reply). In fact, the original tables were fairly misleading, since the figures they gave referred not to the number of people whose phones had been tapped, but the number of warrants which had been issued. A warrant might contain several names. The Birkett report showed a downward trend, but this was almost certainly misleading. One of the figures was not even consistent with the report itself, which had referred to phone taps about illegal lotteries. Yet no phone taps whatsoever referring to lotteries were listed - unless they were the ten warrants in 1955, two years after the last warrant was allegedly issued.

In the late nineteen-sixties and early nineteen-seventies - at the very time, in fact, when the most strident general objections were heard against censuses and census-takers, the debate about privacy took new turns, and also took on a new intensity. This was certainly not because the debate about phone-tapping had gone away. There were increasing suspicions that the security services were prying into peoples private conversations, for instance into the conversations of an increasing number of people deemed to be subversive. When Rudi Dutschke, the German radical, sought academic asylum in Britain in 1970, the tribunal considering his case were told by his lawyer that his phone had been tapped. But if the phone had been tapped, it would appear to have been done so without the authority of the outgoing Home Secretary, Jim Callaghan, who now campaigned against the threat of Dutschkes deportation by his successor, Reginald Maudling. And in the event, Dutschke was deported - a nasty dent in our tradition of dissent, commented Callaghan. It appeared that the security services had been acting without authority. However, Maudlings successor, Robert Carr, would certainly seem to have authorised a phone-tap widely reported in late 1972. This time, it was The Railway Gazette which was convinced it was being bugged (there had been a leaked document about proposals to cut the rail network). One of the suspicious phone-calls was between the editor, Richard Hope, and Les Huckfield, Nuneatons MP - himself a tireless campaigner for civil liberty, and among those most hostile to the census the previous year.

But the principal public concern about individual liberty was stoked by two factors. The first was the arrival of the computer. The second was the testimony of an obscure US civil servant at the Federal Aviation Administration, Alexander Butterfield. Butterfield had been a junior White House aide, and, almost casually, he upset the entire Watergate apple-cart when he revealed that President Nixon (and, although he didnt know it, President Johnson, too) taped his Oval Office conversations and phone-calls. The battle to subpoena the tapes raised the profile of bugging immeasurably. It disposed, ultimately, of Nixons presidency. It foisted the suffix -gate on the English language(2). And it gave rise to massive and constant suspicion of governments and their power to listen in to conversations (the principal irony of the Watergate scandal being, of course, that it arose in the first place from the rather useless bugging by a Republican electoral committee of the Democratic headquarters).

The Coppola film The Conversation, which was in production at the time of Butterfields casual revelation, is about a wire-tapper, Harry Caul, who finds he is being tapped. The Conversation also helped to confirm in the public mind that phone-tapping was not an occasional but an obsessional feature of Western society. It did not matter whether, ten years later, ex-MI5 agent Peter Wright was telling the truth in Spycatcher when he claimed that he and his associates had bugged and burgled their way across London, and, in particular, had bugged not only trade unionists and radicals, but the government. People believed he had. That was what mattered. And they still do, thanks to the spread of cheap listening devices. In 1966, Life magazine published an alarming picture of a device planted inside an olive, designed to pick up martini-drinkers tattle. In 2003, during England's victorious Rugby Union World Cup campaign, manager Clive Woodward had the team rooms swept by a little man, in case the lineout codes were being snitched electronically from under his players broken noses. In half-a-century, the paranoia has only intensified.

The computer was denounced in the House of Lords by Lord Ritchie Calder in 1968 (Calder, a political activist and founder-member of CND, was an unlikely candidate for ennoblement, and another example of Harold Wilsons lateral thinking). He called it - no surprise - Big Brother; he spoke of the tyranny of the dossier, the secret record. He foresaw a time when lives would be stored, tabulated, and turned on their owners. Calder was really ten years ahead of his time, at least in terms of the use of computers to store data on the kind of scale that Wells had begun to imagine, albeit with card-indexes. The Wellsian - rather than Orwellian - system was already, however, beginning to take a murky shape, with hundreds of different files and lists, and some of these were stored on cumbersome spools of computer tape. Passports. National Insurance Cards. Social security cards. Inland Revenue records. By 1968, however, Barclaycard had a computer in Northampton which stored the addresses, jobs, and incomes of nearly one and a quarter million people. Bundles of information about the buying power and preferences of thousands of people were being collected by the grandly-titled Institute of Practitioners of Advertising. Rudimentary credit checks were already being run (the result of the increasing user of hire purchase agreements in the 1960s). The mountain of data was starting to grow. And there were already the first fears that the information stored might be being used, for instance, to sift out candidates applying for interview - that there was a freemasonry of data collectors, in effect. This was the atmosphere in which Jeremy Thorpe had made his 1971 Barnstaple speech about the census. It was an attempt to tap into some slowly simmering paranoia in the national psyche.

Jim Callaghan had himself set up a committee in May 1970, shortly before the general election returned Labour to the backbenches. Chaired by Sir Kenneth Younger, and including Kenneth Robinson, Margaret Drabble and Alex Lyon amongst its sixteen members, it reported in July 1972 with forty recommendations designed to beat off intrusions into the privacy of the individual, although its terms of reference excluded the intrusion of the public sector. This placed a difficult bridle on the committee. Its suggestions included a suggested code of practice on the storage of data on computers.

A survey commissioned by the Younger committee found only that there was a general feeling that privacy was being chipped away, that the issue had not yet surfaced as a matter of major concern. In fact, it actually found that press intrusion, while a matter of anxiety, was felt to be a little less of a problem than it had been. Nevertheless, concern was expressed about the habit of print journalists asking invasive questions, or printing half-truths, or untruths, without the individual having any redress (TV and radio journalists were exculpated). A voluntary code of practice was recommended to the Press Council; and it was suggested that half the Press Councils members should not be from the press, but appointed by an independent body. Apologies should, where possible, take up the same space as the offending original. It was all very kindly, and all very optimistic. It proposed a toothless watchdog on a very long leash. The committee was in unison about every proposal, except one. This was that there should be no law on privacy as such, because it would be too difficult to draft. There were two dissenters, one of them Alex Lyon: they felt that the UK was drifting behind the European examples of privacy law already in place.

It was the mid-seventies. Three things were happening - had happened, indeed, to a certain extent - which were to change our understanding of privacy. They looked harmless enough. They pertained to driving licences, to vehicle registration documents, to postcodes, and to credit cards, and in particular, the first three of these. In 1976, the driving licence took on a new shape. It was an apparently unremarkable, folded piece of paper, to be stowed in a plastic wallet (it had been a tiny booklet, like a miniature passport). In fact, it had the basic characteristic of an identity card, since it contained, in a not-very-subtle cryptogram, the date of birth of the owner. Mine, for instance, was GREEN 509032 TW9RR. (Its significance was particularly lost on me, incidentally, since the actual licence was itself green, and it was some years before I spotted that GREEN was not a colour-code to denote the type of licence to which I was entitled, but the first five characters of my surname!) Now we come to 509032. The fourth and fifth numbers announce that my birthday is on the third; the third number clarifies this - I was born on the third day of the ninth month. The first and sixth numbers give you my year of birth: 1952. Oddly enough, the second character tells you that I am male (it would be a 5 if I were female). TW in the third section tells you that my full name is Thomas William. As for the 9RR - well, this is allegedly to prevent my being mixed up with any other male TW Greensomethings who were born on September 3rd 1952, and who appeared on the DVLC (as it was then known) computer. Also on the DVLC computer were the details of the car I owned, a fashionably purple Mini - the logbook which detailed all previous owners was also replaced by a computerised piece of paper (this piece of paper continued for some time to be known as a logbook, in defiance of logic). The details of both were not only stored in Swansea on the DVLC computer; they were also transferred to the National Police Computer.

Thus, for the first time, the police were able to identify a vehicle by reference to a national computer, and to check whether its driver was the owner (not of course obligatory). The distance travelled in forty-five years may be easily gauged by the very different experiences of my grandfather and myself. On July 7, 1933, an article was published on the front page ofThe Yorkshire Evening Post beneath a photograph of a sports car with its front mangled. YORKSHIRE WRECKED CAR MYSTERY, it read, going on to ask

What is the mystery behind the Talbot sports two-seater car found wrecked and abandoned on the Great North Road, near Walshford Bridge, five miles from Wetherby? Though the police are conducting a thorough search, no trace of a driver or occupant has been found. When discovered by a passing motorist in the early hours of the morning, the car was found on the grass verge at the side of the road, wedged against a stone wall. The radiator was torn off, and the lamps, windscreen and steering wheel were a ruin. Despite wreckage, which indicates a terrible impact, there are no bloodstains to be found, and inquiries at local hospitals have all drawn blank. The only clue is a broken dental plate discovered in the back of the car. The registration mark is GR1 ( Sunderland) and the licence disc also bears a Sunderland stamp.

My grandfather had used his friendship with a local car-dealer to get the first new Sunderland number ( Sunderland numbers had been BR in their first run) on to his plate. He would appear to have vanished toothlessly into the night to avoid any accusation that he had had one drink too many. Even with such a significant number at a time when the roads were hardly teeming, he appears to have been safe enough in the first instance from any police intrusion. In 1978, however, when my purple Mini moved cautiously on to the new stretch of the M5 near Tiverton, a police car almost immediately pulled in front of me, and indicated that I should stop on the hard shoulder. The usual two-minute wait ensued, during which I rattled my brain-cells to deduce what crime I had committed.

What happened next was surprising. The face at the drivers side window looked at me enthusiastically, and asked, Mr. Greenwell?

I could not deny it. But, beaming beneath his peaked cap, he was already off on a new tack. Is your address 28 Pennsylvania Road, Exeter? he enquired. No, I said, wondering if my flat was comically on fire. No, it's 32. This truth brought an even more benign grin to his face. Just checking, he said. And then, enthusiasm really got the better of him. He fixed me full in the face and made me an offer. Would you like, he breezed, to know your chassis number?

I declined, despite his protestations that it would be easy to find, and, accepting his reason for stopping me (Young man in a Mini. Very suspicious), I drove away down the brand spanking tarmac. Of course, what had been happening was an outbreak of police glee. From the privacy of their own parked panda, they had been able to look me up! What a marvellous toy! Obscurely, I began to wonder about data protection. Perhaps I should insist only on divulging name, rank and chassis number. In fact, the happy copper had rather exceeded the terms of the White Paper on Computers and Privacy which in late 1975 had stated:

People asked to provide information should have a right to know for what purpose it will be used, and who is likely to have access to it. The information should not be used for a purpose other than the one for which it was given or obtained without either the consent of the person whom it concerns or some other authorised justification.

And in fact, trivial though the incident was, what I did not then know was that the information on my car and driving licence were already being shared, not only with the National Police Computer, but the Inland Revenue and the Customs and Excise. (The Home Office computer was also collecting details on parking tickets).

In 1964, Philip Larkin's poem The Whitsun Weddings recreates a journey to London by train, the speaker ruminating as the carriages approach the capital:

I thought of London spread out in the sun,
Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat...

These postal districts had in fact already celebrated their centenary. The plan to divide London (then defined as an area within a twelve-mile radius from the centre) had been conceived by Sir Rowland Hill in 1856, and put into place in the next two years. It was necessary, not least because there were several street-names which recurred within the area. There were initially ten districts. In the following decade, Liverpool and Manchester followed suit, and by 1930, they had been joined by Sheffield, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast, Dublin, Brighton, Bristol, Leeds and Newcastle. London meanwhile had started to sub-divide its original districts (1917); it was followed by Glasgow, although with limited success. In 1932, Leeds and Glasgow removed all their street-signs, and replaced them with new ones carrying the district numbers.

By 1959, it had become clear that machine sorting of mail was feasible and necessary, with increasing numbers of letters criss-crossing the country. Norwich was chosen as the pilot city, with each street identifiable by three characters (each postcode began with NOR; some larger firms had codes of their own). But with only about a third of the letters using a code, the trial was only partly successful. A second attempt in 1966, beginning this time in Croydon, depended upon an operator typing phosphor dots on to the addresses, which were then read by sensors. By 1974, every address in the country had been given a postcode, consisting of an area (e.g. EX), a district (e.g. 4), a sector (e.g. 6), and then what is called a unit (e.g. SL). There are about 120 postal areas, divided into about twenty districts, each containing three hundred addresses, which the units break down into about fifteen. Towards the end of the 1970s, there was a concerted campaign to get people to use postcodes, involving national draws and prizes (a Mini). This time, it was largely successful. It helped, perhaps, that the postcodes were printed in the national telephone directory (no longer, of course, the case).

The efficiency of postcoding (and later technological developments have made it more efficient still) was an innocuous development. But of course, it meant that you had another number to add to your burgeoning list. Your address was more instantly traceable. Had you wished to hide, your chosen foxhole was probably coded - as were your national health number, your national insurance number, your tax reference number, your bank account, your TV licence, and so on (for the TV licensing authorities, postcodes were a special boon). In 1978, Patricia Hewitt, then general secretary of the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL), produced a report which picked out four causes for anxiety. Information might be collected without your knowledge, let alone approval. That information might be misleading, might be untrue. The information might be seen by people who had no authority to see it. And the information given for one reason might be used for another.

Hewitt and the NCCLs legal officer, Harriet Harman, had good reason to be concerned about civil liberties. Their phones were being interfered with - specifically, they were being monitored by a printermeter, a machine which logged which numbers were being called by the NCCL. Because this did not amount to telephone tapping, the permission of the Home Secretary was not sought by MI5, who considered both women to be Communist sympathisers. (In fact, it later transpired, thanks to the admission of a disgruntled ex-agent, Cathy Massiter, that their phones were being tapped as well. Harman and Hewitt successfully took the government to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in their favour in 1990).

In the late 1970s, the NCCL was involved in the convoluted case of James Malone. Malone was a Dorking antiques dealer, accused of handling stolen property in 1977. Twice he was tried; twice the jury were unable to agree that he should be convicted. A third attempt to try him ended quickly when the prosecution threw in the towel. This left Malone in an interesting position. At his first trial, a careless policeman had read out parts of conversations which had been recorded from Malones phone (the Home Secretary had agreed to the phone being tapped). Over the next six years, Malone mounted a case through the European courts - and won a verdict in 1984 which denounced the telephone tapping as intruding on his privacy. The most immediate result was the 1985 Interception of Telecommunications Act. This clarified for the first time that it was a criminal offence to tap a phone without a warrant; it set up a tribunal to which individuals could go if they suspected their phones were being illegally tapped; and it prevented the contents of tapped conversations being used in court. It side-stepped the issue of metering completely. Indeed, it was an act that essentially upheld the status quo - even though the European Court of Human Rights took the trouble in its Malone judgment to attack the principle of metering records being passed to the police (who denied that they had metered Malone).

In 1992, an embarrassing robbery at the Fettes headquarters of the Lothian and Borders police revealed that metering was still custom and practice. A leading lawyer, George More, featured in the surveillance charts, since one of the metered individuals was a client. He complained that it was an unpleasant intrusion into my private affairs. The Scottish Secretary, Ian Lang, ordered a review of metering. The upshot of the review was that new guidelines were set up. The one immediate effect of the guidelines was to allow police officers of a less senior rank to order metering to take place.

In the meantime, of course, the electronic swap-shop has boomed like nobodys business - or should that be everybody's business? In July 2000, the Regulation Of Investigatory Powers Act - its optimistic acronym is RIP - came into operation, and extended the power of the police and security services, so that they could intercept internet communications, pagers, satellite phones, mobile phones, even office switchboards. Liberty - as NCCL had been re-named - objected to its intrusion into the life of the individual. Paradoxically, a leading figure in the government which introduced the act is Patricia Hewitt. One of the governments staunchest supporters, temporarily relegated to the backbenches at the time, but since restored as Solicitor-General, is Harriet Harman. Both former civil liberties campaigners were in the government when, in 2003, plans to introduce a national ID card were approved.

The question of who has access to your information, and indeed your property, is liable to throw up some curious answers. One estimate in 1979 was that thirty officials had the right to enter your property, including housing inspectors, child welfare officers, bailiffs, coal board officials, military policemen, post office officials - and water board officials. The Welsh Water Board was reported in that year to be entering the properties of those who were late paying their bills, and making decisions about whether or not to cut off the supply on the basis of their observations of the lifestyle being led by the occupants. Suddenly the ghost of Joe Orton was up and jumping. In his play Loot (1965), the surly police officer, Chief Inspector Truscott, claims to be an official of the Metropolitan Water Board to enter the premises of his suspects.

TRUSCOTT: Weve reason to believe that a number of crimes have been committed under your roof. There was no legal excuse for a warrant. We had no proof. However, the water board doesnt need a warrant to enter private houses. And so I availed myself of this loophole in the law.

Access to information has plainly become easier and easier with the sale of databases. Perhaps the most significant databases to be available for a fee are the electoral roll and postcoded addresses. It is now commonplace, for instance, to be asked for the postcode and first line of your address when purchasing electrical goods. The retailer is able to scroll down a list, and confirm the rest of your address. It is easy; it is convenient. Your purchases are noted on a computer, and a profile of your area is easily built up. That swirl of paper around our time-travelling enumerators feet is not as random as it looks. It is based on a well-informed hunch about what might attract him. If you bought X, then you might well buy Y. As for the electoral roll, which is in any case available at your local library, you can easily buy into it, and in doing so buy into a people searcher which lashes the electoral roll to the telephone directory, although here there is an interesting reversal of information fortune.

It is not as easy to find a telephone number now as it once was. This is not because of the sale of directory enquiries to a series of competitive agencies, although the rise in the price of the service may have deterred people from using it. Far fewer people allow their numbers to appear in print. Far more people have gone ex-directory - more than a quarter of all users, and perhaps 50% in London. In changing from BT to other suppliers, many people have deleted themselves from directories. Nor is there a central mobile phone directory. The culture of landline phones has certainly changed since November 1994, which was when the customer was first able to ring 1471, and indeed, to see who had been calling, for a fee, using Caller Display. It is likely that these services have helped propel many people into directory anonymity. Not that this anonymity is protected against someone who really wants to know. The internet abounds with services which, again for a fee, will provide you with numbers, will reverse search on addresses, and of course provide you with much more serious information, like credit rating.

The position in Britain is thus rather as if it were a room in which a humidifier and a de-humidifier had been set up independently, and asked to fight it out. The availability of information is the humidifier; the dehumidifier is the Data Protection Act. The humidifier appears to be winning the battle.

There have been two Data Protection Acts - 1984 (sic), and 1998. The first DPA was essentially concerned with the right to see information which had been stored electronically, with the right, effectively, to pay to check whether data held was both accurate and undamaging to the individual. There was no right to see data which was being held in a filing cabinet. Ergo, sensitive information would be kept as hard copy, not in an electronic file. This is essentially an insoluble issue, not really resolved by the DPA Act 1998, nor by the Freedom Of Information Act 2000 (which comes into force in 2005). The moral principles underpinning all these acts are exemplary, although the get-out clauses are predictable enough. Ministers and senior police officers can obtain information if they suspect that security is threatened or criminal activity taking place. The problem is not exactly with the acts. It is with the operation of the acts, since the amount of information stored is so colossal. In practice, repeated experiments by journalists(3)have shown that it is easy to obtain information, even if that information should not legally be available.

There are now over four million CCTV cameras in Great Britain. This is something this country has taken to enthusiastically; nowhere in the world is there such a high density of closed-circuit television. One-fifth of the worlds cameras are in this country. (In 1990, there were just one hundred cameras). It is an accepted part of the convention of news reporting that, when people go missing, their last movements are tracked almost obsessively by cameras, or that when deaths, particularly high-profile deaths like those of Princess Diana and Jill Dando, occur, we will see the last recorded footage on our own television screens. The Data Protection Act 1998 does not cover the use of this form of electronic surveillance, except to say that those being filmed are entitled to be told that they are being filmed, and how they may see this footage. Since an average Londoner will be clocked three hundred times a day, it is easy to see that this entitlement is effectively impossible to administer. Besides which, it is at present less than certain that you would recognise yourself on most CCTV footage, which is often reminiscent of the very dodgy TV pictures watched in the 1950s. Help is, however, at hand. In 2003, a Sheffield University project was announced which aimed to use mathematical calculations to match head sizes with images seen on screen. And in late 2003, Manchester unveiled digital TV cameras (no more hunting back through clapped-out tape).

There is some suspicion of the efficacy of CCTV cameras, which have not been shown to reduce violent crime, although they have reduced the number of offences of vehicle theft, and, one would have thought, shoplifting - not so, according to some research. Shoplifters case the joint more carefully than car thieves. The chief objection to them must be the relative cost, since they account at present for about three-quarters of the money spent on preventing crime. A report by NACRO (National Association for Criminal Rehabilitation of Offenders) in 2003 made the rather sensible suggestion that the money might be better spent on street lighting. The problem with technology - with gadgetry - is that it is addictive. There is no reason to suppose that normal human psychology does not operate in the upper echelons of the police force and the Home Office, most of them boys. One gizmo leads to another.

And, taking the long view, there is always the concern that a future government might well use CCTV more to target minorities. We might think this laughable; we might smile benignly on the current regime. But history has a habit of memory lapse. It is not so long since police were seen taking photographs of strikers. CCTV does the job much more discreetly.

Which brings us neatly to the subject of Police Constable Harold Muckle, and the object of his vigilant eye, the dry-cleaner Clarence Willcock. Mr. Willcock was driving carelessly along Ballards Road, Finchley on December 7th, 1950. P.C. Muckle flagged his car down. In the conversation which followed, Muckle asked to see Willcocks national registration card - that is, his ID card - and Willcock, who was a 54-year-old Yorkshireman, refused, either to produce it, or to take it to a police station within 48 hours. When he was as good as his word, the police charged him with an offence under the 1939 National Registration Act. He was about the 450th individual to have been charged that year, and most of the cases led to convictions and fines. Mr. Willcock was to change all that.

It is sometimes forgotten that the British have previously been required to carry an identity cards. Two days after the outbreak of war in 1939, a national register of citizens was set up (thus obviating the need for a census in 1941, which would in any case have been hard to administer). The task of collecting the data fell to enumerators in much the same way as if there had been a census, and it was the Registrar-General who oversaw the process. The ID card (carried by civilians) contained full name, gender, age, occupation, address, marital status, and whether or member of a military reserve (or civil defence service, or reserve). The main reasons for the card (apart from the conducting of a census) had to do with rationing, and with the anticipated mass evacuation. There were a few MPs who resisted the ID card, including one called Tomlinson:

It may be that there is a necessity for compiling a register, but here you have the possibility of people being stopped and asked whether they have or have not lost their cards. You may challenge a dozen people and you find one who has committed an offence. It will not help a scrap to win the war, but there is the possibility of penalising somebody who is perfectly innocent because we have passed a law for another purpose entirely.

But it was not the moment to stand up for the rights of the individual. That time was after the war, when the temporary law, like many laws before it, from income tax to the licensing laws, was regularly renewed (annually in this case, until Mr. Willcock applied his bloody mind to the problem).

The fact was, the ID card provided the police with an instant opportunity for stop-and-search. No reason had to be provided why the ID card should be shown, not even five years after the end of the war. The New Statesman journalist C.H. Rolph (1901-1994, the pseudonym of Charles Rolph Hewitt), had been a policeman for 25 years, rising to the rank of Chief Inspector before leaving the force in 1946. Rolph later admitted that the police had got used to the exhilarating belief that they could get anyones name and address for the asking. Willcock fought his way all the way to the Court of Appeal, where he found an ally in the disturbing figure of Lord Goddard, the Lord Chief Justice, who found in Willcocks favour in 1951. The judgment brought the edifice of the National Register crashing down. (One imagines that Willcock must have viewed the 1951 census, which occurred during his sequence of appeals, as a rather loathsome species of intrusion. Willcock himself won a brief moment of glory, lambasting socialists, before succumbing to a heart attack in the National Liberal Club in 1952, by which time the act had been repealed by Parliament, or rather, not renewed.)

So: do I want an ID card to add to the stash in my wallet? I dont mind, for myself. But perhaps I mind for all those future citizens who want to go about their business in privacy. The jury whilst it still exists is still out.