Human dignity
9 September 2013

The real reason why we won’t act on gender-specific abortions

Sadly, there’s nothing new about the prejudice against baby girls. In many parts of the world female infanticide has been practiced since time immemorial. But as Fraser Nelson explains in an important article for the Daily Telegraph, the problem is getting worse not better – and it is modern techniques that are to blame:

  • “India’s 2011 census shows 7.1 million fewer girls than boys under the age of six – a gap that has almost doubled over two decades. So, rather than a function of villages being backward or poor, this is a phenomenon that grows more pronounced as Indians grow richer. Studies show that wealthier, better-educated Indians are more likely to have boys because they can afford the newish tools of ultrasound and gender-specific abortion.”

Female foeticide is not yet a major problem in this country – not to the extent of affecting the gender ratio. Yet it does happen:

  • “...a few months ago, The Daily Telegraph showed the ease with which these gender-specific abortions can be acquired in Britain. Undercover reporters found private doctors willing to authorise such terminations, with some agreeing to falsify the paperwork. Doctors were caught on film agreeing to an illegal request – all the evidence needed for prosecution. The Crown Prosecution Service initially agreed.”

Then, last week, came the news that the CPS had decided that the prosecution would not go ahead, despite the fact that gender-specific abortion in this country is against the law. However, as Nelson explains, bringing a prosecution would require that the abortion law be upheld as it was originally intended:

  • “In deciding not to prosecute the doctors exposed by The Daily Telegraph, part of the CPS’s argument was that doctors are given ‘wide discretion’ to ‘interpret’ the law. This is a polite way of saying that the law is almost entirely ignored. In theory, the mother’s health should be at risk before an abortion is authorised. In practice, Britain offers abortion on demand.”

In other words, the widespread availability of abortion in this country depends on a loose interpretation of the law. The implication, therefore, is that if the authorities were to uphold the law rigorously in order to prevent female foeticide, they would have to uphold it rigorously in other cases too.

Fraser Nelson argues that the solution is to make gender-specific abortion a specific offence against the law.

Any such move, though, would open up a debate that supporters of abortion on demand would not wish to take place. For instance, if it’s not OK to kill an unborn child because she is female, why is it OK to sanction her destruction because she has Down’s Syndrome?

These are questions that a ‘pro-choice’ society would rather not face – which is why we can expect this and any related issue to be quitely, but firmly, avoided.

Tags: Abortion, female foeticide, gender ratio, Down's Syndrome, discrimination

6 September 2013

Heresy of the week: What if fat people people aren’t responsible for the obesity epidemic?

Obesity isn’t just a problem in the developed world, it is a global (and, indeed, globular) crisis. We must, of course, resist the temptation to make light of this issue, because the implications are deadly serious – as David Berreby reminds us in a startling article for Aeon:

  • For the first time in human history, overweight people outnumber the underfed, and obesity is widespread in wealthy and poor nations alike. The diseases that obesity makes more likely — diabetes, heart ailments, strokes, kidney failure — are rising fast across the world, and the World Health Organisation predicts that they will be the leading causes of death in all countries, even the poorest, within a couple of years.” 

Furthermore, the financial costs of the obesity epidemic will fall on taxpayers of all shapes and sizes:

  • “...the long-term illnesses of the overweight are far more expensive to treat than the infections and accidents for which modern health systems were designed. Obesity threatens individuals with long twilight years of sickness, and health-care systems with bankruptcy.”

Who’s to blame for this crisis? Some people say the food and drink industry, while others insist that obesity is obviously the fault of obese people. Alternatively, one can target both the producers and the consumers of fattening products:

  • “As the Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, recently put it, defending his proposed ban on large cups for sugary drinks: ‘If you want to lose weight, don’t eat. This is not medicine, it’s thermodynamics. If you take in more than you use, you store it.’ (Got that? It’s not complicated medicine, it’s simple physics, the most sciencey science of all.)”

Individuals should, of course, take responsibility for their own health – but what if there's more going on here than a simple failure of personal restraint? 

  • “Consider, for example, this troublesome fact, reported in 2010 by the biostatistician David B Allison and his co-authors at the University of Alabama in Birmingham: over the past 20 years or more, as the American people were getting fatter, so were America’s marmosets. As were laboratory macaques, chimpanzees, vervet monkeys and mice, as well as domestic dogs, domestic cats, and domestic and feral rats from both rural and urban areas. In fact, the researchers examined records on those eight species and found that average weight for every one had increased.”

Is this just a case of fat people having fat pets – or feral animals growing fat on all the food we throw out? The fact that laboratory animals are getting fatter too would indicate that something else is at work:

  • “...lab animals’ lives are so precisely watched and measured that the researchers can rule out accidental human influence: records show those creatures gained weight over decades without any significant change in their diet or activities.”

It is sometimes argued that social factors such inequality and sexism are to blame for the rise in obesity. However, it’s unlikely that such concerns impact greatly upon the lives of marmosets and laboratory mice. Rather, if the evidence on weight gain across species really does stand up, then an environmental factor would seem to be involved:

  • “Viruses, bacteria and industrial chemicals have all entered the sights of obesity research. So have such aspects of modern life as electric light, heat and air conditioning. All of these have been proposed, with some evidence, as direct causes of weight gain: the line of reasoning is not that stress causes you to eat more, but rather that it causes you to gain weight by directly altering the activities of your cells.”

It isn’t unreasonable to suppose that at least one of the countless changes we’ve made to our environment is exerting an influence on human (and animal) metabolisms. Furthermore, the effect doesn’t need to be a very large one. As David Berreby points out “eating a mere 30 calories a day more than you use is enough to lead to serious weight gain.”

Food for thought.

Tags: Obesity, personal responsibility, pollution

5 September 2013

David Goodhart: Confessions of a liberal heretic

There are many problems with describing politics in terms of left and right – and one of them is that it encourages us to see the main political parties as mirror images of one another. Of course, symmetries do exist on issues like public expenditure (the left wants more, the right wants less). But beyond these matters of political economy, there’s something profoundly asymmetrical about the red and blue corners of the British political arena.

In particular, the mainstream right is much more tolerant of ideological differences than the mainstream left. British Conservatives are able to hold sharply differing views on hot-button issues like abortion, immigration, climate change, capital punishment or foreign intervention and still co-exist. To an increasing extent the same does not apply on the other side of the aisle. Thoughtful leftwingers can quite easily find themselves beyond the pale if they think (and say) the 'wrong' things.

Dissident lefties like the Blairite Dan Hodges or the liberal interventionist Nick Cohen often find a friendlier reception on the right than the left. The same goes for David Goodhart, the editor of Prospect. His thought-crime was to question the liberal left orthodoxy on immigration. In a confessional piece for Standpoint – the centre-right counterpart to Prospect – he gives an account of himself:

  • “To express it in a slogan, I am pro-immigrant but against mass immigration. I believe in human equality and the unity of the human race, but I am sceptical about the economic benefits of large-scale immigration for the bottom half of British society, and worry about too much rapid change leading to segregation of communities and a withering of the kind of fellow-feeling needed to sustain welfare states.”

By his own admission, he was for most of his adult life an unthinking subscriber to the standard line:

  • “I had barely given immigration a thought until well into my forties — though as a journalist of leftish sympathies I was reflexively in favour of as much of it as possible and vaguely aware of having two immigrant grandfathers (both American). Like many metropolitan liberals I had very little direct experience of immigration yet I came to see it as beyond the normal trade-offs and interest calculations of political life. It was simple: good people were in favour of it, and bad, bigoted people were against it.”

Though it’s still a touchy subject on the left, the wider debate on immigration has become a great deal more open in recent years. It is now possible to address issues of identity and citizenship without being accused of racism. Yet for many decades, the grip of political corrrectness was stronger on this issue than any other. Goodhart has some interesting ideas as to why this was:

  • “Britain did not in the 1970s develop a post-imperial language of national citizenship and identity. Many on the Right felt ambivalent about fully extending citizenship to non-natives (who were just starting to arrive in significant numbers), and too many young lefties like me thought that welcoming the newcomers meant discarding the nation and its traditions. A more coherent "middle way" between universalism and a tribal nationalism is what we have been reaching for ever since...”

There’s an important lesson here for the right. When conservatives have nothing constructive to contribute on an issue, it gives the doctrinaire left an opportunity to establish an ideological monopoly, one which can take a long-time to break open.

We should therefore take encouragement from the fact that the modern-day British right is a place of diverse opinions and lively debate. Unlike the American right, conformity is not confused with authenticity. 

But you may disagree.

Tags: David Goodhart, left and right, immigration, nationhood, political correctness

4 September 2013

Germany’s eurosceptics dare to be different

The outcome of the forthcoming German general election could be determined by the performance of a new eurosceptic political party called the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

It's tempting to describe the AfD as Germany’s UKIP, but its leaders have made it clear that they have more in common with the British Conservative Party than with Nigel Farage and friends. Furthermore, while the AfD wants an end to the Eurozone, it supports Germany’s continued membership of a reformed European Union.

Despite a policy platform that would be considered wholly unremarkable in a British context, the AfD is the target of sustained abuse in Germany – some of it violent. Friederike Heine reports on recent events for Spiegel Online:

  • “Bernd Lucke [the AfD’s leader] is among the most controversial figures in Germany. His political agenda – which includes an ‘orderly dissolution’ of the euro, a decentralized European Union and a move towards Swiss-style, direct democracy – is often met with doubt, and sometimes outright hostility.
  • “Last week, left-wing agitators stormed the stage at an Alternative for Germany (AfD) campaign event, pushing Lucke to the ground and using pepper spray on several campaigners. The attack came as little surprise, though, after a confrontation with Green Youth activists earlier this month prompted the AfD to apply for police protection on its campaign trail.”

The pressure hasn’t just come from leftwing rentamobs, but also from the mainstream media:

  • “This spring, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper ran a piece on the hidden ties between the AfD and members of the right-wing extremist National Democratic Party (NPD). The AfD's stance on Europe, a Berlin NPD official told the paper, was closer to NPD policies ‘than any other established party in Germany.’ Other German newspapers have taken a similar line.”

Might these newspapers have a point? The facts would suggest that they don’t:

  • “Suspicions that the AfD may be moving into right-wing extremist territory were put into question last week, however. An Internet study published by linkfluence – a Franco-German social media monitoring company – shows that there is little or no overlap between the AfD's politics and those of the right-wing extremist NPD.
  • “The study, which was overseen by the company's German chief executive Oliver Tabino, consists of two parts: an analysis of AfD and NPD supporters' Facebook ‘likes,’ and an evaluation of hyperlinks to and from the AfD's various regional party websites.
  • “The Facebook analysis shows that supporters of the AfD and those of the NPD have little in common.”

Despite this evidence, the criticism of the AfD continues. For instance, in her otherwise fair and balanced article, Friederike Heine argues that “by advocating a break from consensus-oriented politics and decrying political correctness as a burden on free speech, the party is aligning itself with other right-wing populist movements across Europe.”

And yet the consensus that the AfD is breaking is on the Eurozone – which is hardly unreasonable in the circumstances. As for its European alignments, the AfD seems closest to David Cameron’s Conservative Party – which, in German eyes, is obviously what counts as a rightwing populist movement.

Tags: Germany, Alternative for Germany, euroscepticism, Eurozone, European Union, Conservative Party, UKIP

Work and prosperity
3 September 2013

How quantitative easing in the West screws up the rest of the world

With Syria and Egypt dominating the headlines, an international crisis of a different kind is going largely unnoticed. In countries like Turkey, India, Indonesia and Brazil, currencies and stock markets are plunging in value, with governments desperately trying to control inflation and prevent capital flight.

But, hang on, aren’t these the fast-growing ‘emerging economies’ that are supposed to be compensating for the moribund West? Er, yes.

So, why the sudden crisis of confidence? In an eye-opener of an article for Project Syndicate, Stephen Roach pins the blame on trade imbalances:

  • “According to the International Monetary Fund, India’s external deficit, for example, is likely to average 5% of GDP in 2012-2013, compared to 2.8% in 2008-2011. Similarly, Indonesia’s current-account deficit, at 3% of GDP in 2012-2013, represents an even sharper deterioration from surpluses that averaged 0.7% of GDP in 2008-2011. Comparable patterns are evident in Brazil, South Africa, and Turkey.”

Worried about how these imbalances are going to be financed, investors are pulling their money out, thereby exacerbating matters in the time-honoured fashion.

But as Stephen Roach explains, there’s more to it than that. While we in the West worry about the impact that quantitative easing (QE) might have on our economies, we’ve given very little thought to the impact it might have further afield – and, in particular, upon global flows of capital.

The original purpose of QE was to artificially reduce interest rates and ease the repayment of accumulated debts. The inevitable side effect was that some investors took their money elsewhere in the hope of a better return. And where better than those exciting emerging economies?

  • “[This] provided a surplus of yield-seeking capital from investors in developed countries, thereby allowing emerging economies to remain on high-growth trajectories. IMF research puts emerging markets’ cumulative capital inflows at close to $4 trillion since the onset of QE in 2009. Enticed by the siren song of a shortcut to rapid economic growth, these inflows lulled emerging-market countries into believing that their imbalances were sustainable, enabling them to avoid the discipline needed to put their economies on more stable and viable paths.”

Now that western economies are showing signs of recovery, finance ministers and central bankers are making plans for the unwinding of QE. Again this is a very self-centred debate, in which the experts worry about getting the timing just right (exit from QE too soon and we could stall the recovery; exit too late and we could unleash inflation).

Meanwhile, the money markets are anticipating the fact that QE is on its way out – and are looking towards a QE-free future:

Thus much of the capital that flowed into the emerging economies is flowing back out again – returning home to the West where interest rates and investment yields can only move in one direction.

In terms of distorting capital flows, QE has worked in a remarkably similar way to the Eurozone – pushing easy money at unreformed economies and then yanking the prop away at the worst possible moment.

Tags: Emerging economies, quantitative easing, central banks, global capital flows, international trade

2 September 2013

What’s so special about chemical weapons?

Who could not be horrified by the sight of children slain by sarin gas? Thanks to the newspapers we’ve all seen the photographic evidence. But if those children had been killed by conventional munitions – as many thousands of others have been in Syria – would the front pages have shown their corpses then?

Probably not. To use a nerve agent against innocent civilians is a crime against humanity, but surely the same applies to the use of burning, crushing and dismembering agents – or 'bombs' as they're otherwise known. 

Given the foreign policy implications, we need to ask if our special horror of chemical weapons is justified. Writing in Foreign Affairs, John Mueller is sceptical:

  • “The notion that killing with gas is more reprehensible than killing with bullets or shrapnel came out of World War I, in which chemical weapons, introduced by the Germans in 1915, were used extensively. The British emphasized the weapons’ inhumane aspects as part of their ongoing program to entice the United States into taking their side in the war. It is estimated that the British quintupled their gas casualty figures from the first German attack for dramatic effect.”
  • “As it happened, chemical weapons accounted for considerably less than one percent of the battle deaths in the war, and, on average, it took over a ton of gas to produce a single fatality.”

Gas was also a notoriously difficult weapon to use – sometimes blowing back in the faces of those deploying it. It is therefore not surprising that the “militaries of the combatant nations were quite happy to get rid of the weapons.”

In more recent times, chemical weapons have come under the politically-potent heading of WMD:

  • “ the Cold War came to an end, the phrase ‘weapons of mass destruction’ was coming into vogue. Earlier, the term had generally been taken as a dramatic synonym for nuclear weapons or weapons of similar destructive capacity that might be developed in the future. In 1992, however, the phrase was explicitly codified into American law and was determined to include not only nuclear weapons but chemical and biological ones as well.”

Yet, as John Mueller points out, chemical weapons are not especially destructive – not when compared to other instruments of war: 

  • “A single nuclear weapon can indeed inflict massive destruction; a single chemical weapon cannot. For chemical weapons to cause extensive damage, many of them must be used – just like conventional weapons. As a presidential advisory panel noted in 1999, it would take a full ton of sarin gas released under favorable weather conditions for the destructive effects to become distinctly greater than those that could be achieved with conventional explosives.”

Indeed, if you want to see what mass destruction looks like, then the conventional shelling and aerial bombardment of Syria’s towns and cities provides a stark modern-day example. Nerve agents, by way of contrast, leave buildings and infrastructure completely untouched – which, while of little consolation to those killed, means that post-conflict recovery is that much easier. 

Yet this is precisely why chemical weapons are so dangerous. Quite simply there is no more efficient an instrument in the ethnic cleanser’s tool-kit. The destructiveness of each individual attack may be limited, but that’s the point: Enemy populations can be eliminated at the level of the village or the neighbourhood – always handy when the ethnic mix is as granular as it is in Syria.

The only constraint on the use of chemical weapons is the morality of those who possess them or the fear of external punishment – and, in Syria it is difficult to see where either of those are going to come from.

Tags: Syria, chemical weapons, ethnic cleansing, genocide, weapons of mass destruction, crimes against humanity

30 August 2013

Heresy of the week: The spectre of peak oil still looms over us

The Syrian conflict is full of complicating factors, but oil isn’t one of them. Syria accounts for less than half of one per cent of global production, most of which is consumed domestically. That said, Iran and Saudi Arabia stand on opposite sides of Syria’s civil war – and of the world’s most important oil and gas shipping lane. Fears of a wider regional conflict are therefore putting upward pressure on energy prices.

Still, at least we don’t have to worry about ‘peak oil’ anymore. Though we may face serious threats to security of supply, fears of an imminent decline in the world’s capacity to produce oil are subsiding. 

In an article for IEEE Spectrum, Bill Sweet says that this new confidence has been engendered by technological advances: 

Not every expert agrees:

This is a crucial point that many people miss in the debate over peak oil. No one doubts the fact that most of the world’s oil remains in the ground. But the question that matters is whether we can continue to extract it at a reasonable price. The true limiting factor in the most credible peak oil scenario is not so much our capacity to produce oil as our capacity to pay for it: 

Huge sums are being invested in new extractive technologies, but it remains to be seen whether these efforts can shift oil prices downwards or whether such investment depends on oil prices remaining high.

Meanwhile, it’s worth remembering that conventional oil production will continue for some time to come. In particular, major oil fields in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran have yet to be exhausted. Thanks to high oil prices they provide their owners with a fat profit – and a means of funding the slaughter of Syria’s unfortunate people. 

Tags: Peak oil, enhanced oil recovery, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, energy security, oil prices

Work and prosperity
29 August 2013

Good news! Healthcare costs are bankrupting us at a slower rate than ever before!

The decision to ring-fence the NHS budget is taken by some on the right as evidence that the Government is insufficiently serious about cutting public expenditure. In fact, securing acceptance for a near freeze in health spending is one of David Cameron’s more notable achievements. 

Just how long this restraint lasts remains to be seen. It is widely assumed that the aging (and fattening) of the population will, in the long term, drive healthcare expenditures ever higher. 

However, in an article for Bloomberg, Megan McArdle brings us some mildly encouraging news from America. Spending on Medicare (state funded health insurance for the over-65s and younger people with disabilities) “has been growing more slowly than its historical average”.

It should be stressed that it is the rate of increase in spending per beneficiary that is slowing down. Nevertheless, this could be a sign that an end to the escalation of healthcare costs is finally at hand. 

A Congressional Budget Office investigation has tried to identify the causes of the slow-down:

  • “If you had to guess why Medicare was growing more slowly, you’d probably come up with one of two answers: ‘Obamacare’ or ‘the recession.’ (No bonus points for guessing which party prefers which answer.) But the CBO largely rejected both those answers.”

Instead, the leading identifiable cause is demographic change:

  • “The largest effect was one I hadn’t expected: the changing age profile of Medicare beneficiaries. The boomers bulge is adding a large influx of relatively young people to the system, dragging down its average age – which in turn, lowers the average spending per beneficiary.
  • “If you’d ask me what effect the boomers would have on Medicare, I probably would have thought of this eventually, but I wouldn’t have predicted that the effect would be so large. The CBO estimates that this factor alone lowered the annual growth rate of spending per beneficiary by three-tenths of a percentage point.”

Actually, this isn’t at all encouraging. All those newly retired baby-boomers may be bringing down the average age of people on Medicare – but only by increasing the overall number of beneficiaries. Furthermore, as time goes on, younger retirees will become older retirees – with all that implies for demand on the system.

However, the average age effect only accounts for some of the reduction in the rate of increase in spending per beneficiary:

  • “...that still leaves a good bit to account for, since the gap between the current rate and the historical rate is 3.2 percent. The remainder of that gap is explained by…well, we don’t know. It may be changes in the way that care is delivered…”

If true, this really would be good news, because progress on efficiency is absolutely vital if healthcare is not to bankrupt the western world.

It’s also worth noting that if such progress is being made in America, then it began before Barack Obama’s much-vaunted reforms:

  • “...probably driven by insurance companies and Bush-era Medicare changes, not Obamacare, since the broad economy-wide decline in health-care cost inflation started in the middle of the last decade…”

Perhaps healthcare providers have realised that the future of their industry is all about value-for-money. Certainly, there can be no more blank cheques from the taxpayer – not even for the NHS.

Tags: Public expenditure, healthcare, America, Medicare, Stein's Law

Work and prosperity
28 August 2013

It’s time to start worrying about Japan again

Sometimes you have to wonder whether most people understand the enormity of our national debt, let alone the debts of other nations. Perhaps the problem is one of terminology. We hear talk of trillions of pounds or euros, but what proportion of the public knows what a trillion actually is?

Here's a quick reminder (not that you'll need it, of course): a million is a thousand thousands, a billion is a thousand millions and a trillion is a million millions. In other words, for every thousand-fold increase there’s a new name for the numbers we’re talking about.

According to Jay Zawatsky in the National Interest, the Japanese have moved beyond trillions to  the next level:

  • “In actual currency, Japan’s debt has crossed the quadrillion yen threshold. That is a 1 followed by 15 zeros. Of course, with a yen being worth a (U.S.) penny, Japan’s debt is equivalent to $10 trillion. But with a GDP equal to one-third the size of U.S. GDP, Japan’s debt is like the U.S. having a $30 trillion national debt, about twice its actual size of just under $17 trillion, which is the largest absolute national debt of any nation in all of modern history.”

So, what are the Japanese doing about their quadrillion yen debt? Well, much like the British and the Americans, they’re turning on the printing presses – only more so:

  • “The Bank of Japan (BOJ), under its new governor, Haruhiko Kuroda, just announced that it will purchase 7.5 trillion yen (that’s $75 billion) per month in Japanese government bonds. Yes, $75 billion is less than the Fed’s $85 billion, but Japan’s GDP is only a third the size of the U.S. GDP…”

Indeed, the BOJ’s actions are set to double Japan’s monetary base in the space of just two years. But why? What could have possibly prompted the Japanese to follow such an extreme course of quantitative easing? The answer to that is is the failure of fiscal stimulus. The kind of expansionary spending policies that Ed Balls wants us to try in Britain simply haven’t worked – and not for want of trying:

  • “Despite spending more than 60 trillion yen (approximately $600 billion, but equal to approximately $1.8 trillion in U.S.-GDP-equivalent spending) on Keynesian stimulus programs (scores of roads and bridges and other shovel-ready projects to nowhere) in fourteen supplementary budgets since 1998, the Japanese GDP has risen at less than one half of one percent, on average, over the last three fiscal quarters.”

If the Japanese economy isn't growing, then how are they funding all that stimulus?

  • “Japan’s public debt has grown from about 60 percent of GDP in 1990 to over 230 percent today. At the rate of deficit spending planned by Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe for the rest of 2013, about 10 percent of GDP, that ratio could top 240 percent in 2014.”

Hence the extreme QE – when your debt burden is so huge, it’s vital that interest rates are kept low. For rates to stay low, you either need the confidence of the money markets or a population that’s willing and able to lend to the state. For decades Japanese governments mostly borrowed from their own citizens, but in the world’s fastest aging society that’s not the option it used to be. Thus it is increasingly vital that foreign investors see Japan as a safe haven.

Unsurprisingly, Japan’s aggressive monetary expansion has led to a weakening of the yen – which, in an export-orientated economy, should be a good thing. Unfortunately, the theory isn’t working out so well in practice:

  • “For the first six months of 2013, Japan treated itself to its largest trade deficit in history, courtesy of the lower yen. As the yen has fallen, the prices of goods imported into Japan have risen quickly, much more quickly than exports have increased.”

And to think we used to worry about Japan's economic strength.

Tags: Japan, debt, quantitative easing, exchange rates, fiscal stimulus

Law and order
27 August 2013

What is it like to be recognised everywhere you go? You’re about to find out

We may sometimes regret the anonymity of modern life, but would we really have it any other way? To be able to conduct our private business in public spaces is a privilege that most people throughout most of history could not have imagined.

In our own day, it is only the famous – or infamous – who are unable to lose themselves in a crowd. Even in the age of ubiquitous CCTV, being caught on camera is not the same thing as being recognised.

That however may be about to change. According to Charlie Savage of the New York Times, the US government is working on a facial recognition technology that has serious implications for privacy:

It sounds like the Department of Homeland Security could do with a little PR advice. If you’re developing a technology that will have every civil libertarian in the western world fearing for our basic freedoms, then calling it ‘BOSS’ isn’t really going to help, is it? They should try a less sinister name, such as ‘Hi-Tech Homeland Emergency Recognition Electronics’ – or ‘Hi-THERE’ for short. Sounds much friendlier.

Whatever you call it, this is how it’s meant to work:

If successfully deployed, the technology will be of huge help to the police in locating and identifying terrorists, criminals or missing persons:

And yet, by the same token, BOSS would allow the state to track the movements of ordinary citizens:

If you recall, the last Labour government wanted us all to carry ID cards. It was only a public backlash and Conservative opposition that frustrated their plans. However, if something like BOSS is deployed in Britain, ID cards will become irrelevant – because as long as your photo is on file, the state will always know who you are and where you are.

Tags: Facial recognition technology, CCTV, surveillance, civil liberties, privacy, terrorism

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