Starter for Ten: What do Tom Cruise, the ‘precogs’ and the Communications Data Bill all have in common?

Tom Cruise has been on my mind rather a lot lately. Make no mistake, it’s been an unwelcome intrusion, one that forces my thoughts into dark corners and asks unanswerable, gnawing questions, like; Tom – how could you believe in a religion that makes you sign a contract for a billion years? Are you aware that Rupert Murdoch, of all people, branded your religion as ‘creepy, maybe evil’? Isn’t it beyond weird that all three of your wives filed for divorce when they were thirty-three years of age? I mean, BEYOND WEIRD?

So you would have thought that attending Frontline’s public debate on the beleaguered Communications Data Bill last week would have given my mind a break from these troublesome questions of Cruise and conspiracy theories. But sadly not. It was when Jamie Bartlett of think tank Demos spluttered indignantly, ‘it’s not like we live in Minority Report!’ to his fellow panel members, David Davis MP, Isabella Sankey of civil liberties organisation Liberty and Professor Anthony Glees of Buckingham university, that Cruise skulked back into my mind.

In some ways, the 2002 sci-fi film based on Philip K. Dick’s short story lends itself to this dredged-up coalition conundrum quite nicely (the Scientology and three divorces bit not quite so much). The film is a charming little vignette of the citizens of Washington D.C in the year 2054. It’s a highly advanced, technological society, where cereal boxes sing to you and a Big Brother-like system monitors your every move through retina scans. Peachy. But the film’s most chilling feature, more spooky than singing cereal boxes, is the ability of its police force to predict crime, thanks to the ethereal ‘precognitives’. Criminals are caught, usually with the ever-subtle Cruise smashing through people’s windows, charging them with future crimes, and locking them away without trial for a crime they never committed (anyone else reminded of the post 9/11 terrorism legislation that allowed for detention without trial?). In a world without PreCrime technology, it may seem to some that the closest we get to being able to predict crimes accurately is the Communications Data Bill. The bill, that has earned the deeply affectionate name ‘The Snooper’s Charter’ and that could be in force by the end of next year, would allow the Secretary of State to monitor the phone calls, emails and website visits of all UK citizens. It’s modeled on RIPA (a pretty terrifying and ominous-sounding acronym in itself) that already intercepts certain data of phone calls, crucially for opponents of the Bill, without warrant.

The proponents of the Bill, or the Minority Report camp as I like to call them, argue that the police need greater technological capabilities to keep mastermind criminals and terrorist cells at bay, and when they exclaim in public ‘it’s not like we live in Minority Report!’, there is a real strain of disappointment in their voice that this can’t be achieved through use of the ‘precogs’. Darn it! As a result of this, they’re pretty laid-back about the Bill, as demonstrated by Glees, practically glowing in his admiration for it; ‘the bill, I’m entirely comfortable with it. I have no problem with it. Indeed, I would want my money back if our security community did not attempt to extend on to the new media the things that already exist.’

What makes Glees and others so comfortable with the bill is the belief that we don’t live in a surveillance society designed by power-hungry, malicious maniacs, and that consequently, the bill is in safe hands. All those who object to it, must therefore, in the words of Theresa May, be ‘conspiracy theorists.’ Having studied the Stasi and other secret organisations, Glees points out that the UK’s secret intelligence officers amount to a mere 12,000 and there is only one MI5 officer for every 17,105 citizens. He concludes it would be quite impossible for the security services to be monitoring all of us all of the time anyway. But Glees misses the point; it’s not that opponents of the bill believe the government and MI5 to be creepy protagonists in a conspiracy to mercilessly hunt us down and frame us for crimes we did not commit (as in Minority Report). It’s that, as Sankey stated later on in the debate, the security services have historically always asked for greater power from the government. Regardless of your opinions of the government or the security services, giving into this age-old whim should not be done by simply handing over a blank cheque, free from accountability and without need of a warrant from a non-biased source (i.e a judge, as opposed to the Home Secretary). Moreover, it’s irrelevant whether the bill has the ability to monitor absolutely every single one of us. There’s a real chance that even if it can monitor just a few of us, it will inevitably lead to discrimination and racial profiling, as did police stop-and-search powers. Blanket surveillance over all of us, instead of thoughtful, intelligent counter-terrorism and crime investigation is just asking for trouble.

Jamie Bartlett’s unadulterated trust in the government also struck an uncanny note with Minority Report. The system of PreCrime in the film is wholly trusted and rarely questioned (apart from when one rather dashing Colin Farrell decides to undertake a system audit – who would have thought an audit could be so engrossing?) Thankfully, the simple question, ‘why should we trust the government?’ came from one upstanding citizen at the end of the debate and reflected a reassuring and prevalent lack of trust in the powers that be. Bartlett’s reasoning that Theresa May’s motives for implementing the bill is ‘the same reason why most incoming governments suddenly get tough on security; because they suddenly realise what the security services might actually need’, did little to assuage the audience that blindly trusting in a government is ever a good idea. In light of recent revelations of government complicity in torture and extraordinary rendition, cheerfully handing power to the security services without ever questioning the ramifications of it would be astonishingly naive. Davis’ speculation over May’s motives, that newer, less-experienced governments simply ‘tend to be more pliable’ when asked for greater powers from senior spooks, seemed patronising, but more plausible.

The problem with the system in Minority Report, is that *spoiler alert*, it doesn’t really work. The system is manipulated by the evil head of PreCrime when it becomes apparent that Cruise is in possession of knowledge that could damage the integrity of the system. It becomes clear that there are such things called ‘minority reports’, which arise when one of the ‘precogs’ disagrees over the likelihood of the suspected criminal actually committing the crime; i.e. the system is fallible. It’s a reminder that technology, no matter how slick, can still be manipulated by humans or interpreted wrongly. Paul Chambers, whose (possibly misguided) joke of threatening to blow up an airport via Twitter saw him arrested and convicted for ‘sending a message of menacing character’, (140 characters, to be exact) demonstrates this. Chambers may not have been arrested for a future crime, but it does demonstrate that taking technology or social media at face value, without undergoing critical assessment of the suspect will probably lead to the wrong guy getting arrested. And maybe the bill wouldn’t be abused by those in charge of it like in Minority Report, but there’s every reason to suggest it would be by third parties. Davis described it as a honey pot, one ‘not just of interest to the agencies but to every divorce lawyer in the country, paparazzi who might want to Ping where you are so they can come and photograph you.’ Seeing as the Pentagon, Microsoft and Sony have all been hacked into, (all with vastly superior defence technologies than our own government) there’s no reason why this honey pot would not suffer the same sticky fate.

So perhaps Bartlett’s no doubt throwaway comment, that we don’t live in Minority Report, actually undermines his argument. The film, in the context of the Communications Data bill is a reminder of what can go wrong when we rely too heavily on technology to solve crime, using blanket surveillance rather than intelligent investigation.There is a real possibility of putting too much trust in technology and believing too heavily in the infallibility of the ‘system’, condemning suspects to their fate before a crime has even been committed. Cruise, for all the creepy, kooky questions you put into my mind on a regular basis, you played your part in condemning a society that gives too much unaccounted power to the security services and that relies too heavily on technology. For that, I can at least be thankful.