We’ve never been under such intense scrutiny as we are today. So how do we evade the snoopers? Here, an ‘off-grid’ expert offers an insider’s guide
By Nick Rosen
We live in the most watched-over society in Europe. Exposure, especially in The Observer, has done little to hold the state and private sector in check. Phone records have become police records, as Henry Porter pointed out in this paper last week, and CCTV camera records are now fed into the automatic registration number computer. Credit and store-card records have become marketing records and our email addresses are points of entry for all sorts of crime and spam.
It’s time to fight back using all the legal means at our disposal. We need to duck under the radar of government surveillance, credit-checking agencies, internet and mobile phone companies or the DVLA. I have been learning how to keep the info-snoopers at bay. My research has led me into a world of middle-aged hoodies, who cover up in shopping centres to avoid the CCTV cameras; of young computer users who keep their names off spam lists and out of reach of the megacorps; and people who live off-grid, out of sight of the system and unplugged from the utility companies. So, here’s is a survival checklist for the information age.
1 Buy an untraceable mobile phone
Travel to a town you have never visited before, to an area with no CCTV cameras and ask a homeless person to buy a pay-as-you-go mobile phone for you. That way no shop will have your image on its CCTV. You will also have an anonymous mobile.
In order to keep your anonymity, top it up in a shop with no CCTV outside. Or dispense with the phone altogether and return to the humble payphone, now the preserve of tourists and the super-poor.
Even if you stick to your traceable phone, leave it switched off whenever possible to avoid having your movements tracked. Many phones are still traceable, so you need to take the battery out to be certain. If you have a Bluetooth phone, keep the service switched off because this is now being tested for advertising and other marketing activities.
2 Safeguard your email
If you use one of the free, web-based services like Gmail, your communications are being stored to build up a picture of your interests. Instead, you can use a service called Hushmail to send encrypted emails. Or work out a private code with friends you want to communicate with.
You do not need an email address of your own. One hacker I spoke to sends emails from cybercafes via The Observer website, using the service which allows anyone to send any article to a friend. He embeds his message into the covering note which goes with the article.
Others with their own computer use the free XeroBank browser (in preference to Explorer or Firefox), which includes several privacy-enhancing add-ons and sends all data through a network ‘cloud’ which hides most of the data you normally give away as you use a computer, but at the cost of reduced speed (http://xerobank.com/xB_browser.html).
3 Safeguard your computer and your files
There is sophisticated software that deletes all traces of your activities from your computer. Assuming you don’t have access to this, it is still worth remembering the data about you contained inside each file. Many digital photos, for example, contain within them the serial number of the camera that took them. Word documents contain the name of the author as well as traces of previous drafts.
4 Be invisible to CCTV cameras
Steve is a middle-aged IT consultant who lives in a bungalow on a smart private estate in south west London. He has never committed a criminal act. When he goes to business meetings, he wears a suit and tie, but when he walks around his local high street, he dons a hoodie. He does it on principle.
‘I don’t disapprove of the technology in its rightful place,’ Steve told me, ‘but we have an unregulated mess. It hasn’t reduced crime in any real sense - it’s displaced it in some cases.’ Media reports always say there are 4.2 million CCTV cameras in the UK, but they have been using that figure for the past two years. So it’s a safe bet we have at least six million by now, and there is no central register. You can use the Data Protection Act to request a copy of your own image from any particular camera, but that is simply a way of harassing CCTV owners, not safeguarding your identity.
5 Stay off spam mailing lists
Each time you submit your email address to register for a new website, create a special address, either on a free webmail service or on your own email server so you have control over it. Then, if the company later sells your email address or loses it through poor security, you will know exactly who to blame. And you will be able to close the account or block all email to that particular address. Again, Hushmail is useful for this. You can set it up to create these aliases for you.
6 Prevent supermarkets knowing your shopping habits
Swap your supermarket loyalty card with a friend or acquaintance every few months, after having cashed in any points you have accumulated (treat Oyster and other local transport cards the same way). You lose no benefits and it prevents tracking of specific purchasing patterns (or journeys) tied to your name and address. Use cash more often - save your credit card for emergencies.
7 Avoid utility companies’ marketing departments
Live off-grid, unplugged from the system with solar panels and rainwater harvesting. There are tens of thousands of people living without mains power, water or sewerage, in isolated cottages, behind hedgerows in caravans or in groups of yurts in country fields. And this is not just a movement for tree huggers and climate campers. Many live on boats in towns and cities, and if you live in a flat or house, you can still unplug.
8 Keep your car off the automatic number recognition system
The simplest way is to leave the car at home and use a bicycle. But if you must drive, don’t go into a congestion zone at any time. There are other legal ways to hide your registration number from the cameras - swap the light above the rear numberplate for an infrared bulb and that will flood the video-camera which operates at near infrared frequency.
9 Safeguard your NHS data
If you are born in this country, then your NHS records are inescapable. But you can choose to store them with your GP to keep them off the central computer, and this should reduce the chances of the medical records being sold (legally) to drugs companies or (illegally) to private detectives or being snooped on by the 300,000 ‘authorised users’ of the system, without affecting medical care.
There is no need to worry about, for example, records of your blood group not being available to medical staff after an accident - doctors no longer rely on paper or computer records. The automated diagnostic blood group tests are done by the ambulance crew on the way to hospital. You can get a form letter to send to the NHS from nhsconfidentiality.org.
10 Shop outside the system
The website Freecycle (freecycle.org) could provide many of your needs. It consists of hundreds of short announcements from people trying to give away stuff they no longer need: beds, TVs, bookcases, the whole of human life is there in return for the cost of picking it up from the donor. There are local Freecycle groups all over the country (and the world), each with their own local web address. Some people make a decent living gathering things from Freecycle and selling them at car boot sales.
There are full-time scavengers living off food retrieved from supermarket bins, because vast amounts of produce are simply thrown away on the eve of their sell-by date.
Another way to avoid buying food is to barter for it. The car park of the pub in the centre of Longframlington village in Northumberland has been a barter centre for decades. On any Friday night between April and October, locals arrive and flip down the backs of their 4×4s laden with the week’s produce, whether its chanterelles, venison, pheasant, line-caught salmon or the latest crop of beetroots and lettuces.
Technically, this innocent activity is tax evasion. ‘It’s all very rustic and encourages a paper-free environment, but this can underpin what can only amount to potential income tax, corporation tax or VAT non-disclosure, or even fraud,’ said accountant Julie Butler. But does Alistair Darling really want to take another bash at the delicate fabric of the countryside?
It may seem almost comical to go to these lengths, but the ways companies and the public sector can misuse data isn’t a joke. We cannot trust them to safeguard our data or use it ethically, so we must provide our own safeguards.
· Nick Rosen is editor of the Off-Grid website: off-grid.net