Saturday Times (17th April 2010)
Can you disappear in surveillance Britain?
David Bond wanted to see if it’s possible to vanish so one day he packed his bag, got into his car and kissed his wife goodbye
Photo: Phil Fisk
Article by: Jean-Paul Flintoff
Back in January last year, David Bond packed a rucksack, kissed his pregnant wife Katie and toddler Ivy, climbed into his Toyota Prius and drove away from home. Nobody knew where he was going – he didn’t even know himself. One thing he was sure about was this: “I’m going to leave my life behind and disappear,” he said.
A 38-year-old Oxford graduate with a solid if unspectacular career in media, Bond wasn’t your typical runaway. But then, you might have said the same about Will Smith in Enemy of the State, or Robert Donat in The 39 Steps – two of Bond’s favourite films. For Katie, left alone with a toddler, his disappearance could not have come at a worse time. “I had to juggle the childcare and work,” she says, “and I was seven and a half months pregnant.”
Bond might never have thought of running away if he’d not received a letter, some months earlier, informing him that his daughter was among 25 million Britons whose records had been lost by the Child Benefit Office, along with bank details and other private information.
He “became obsessed”, Katie remembers, about the amount of information on him and his family that was already out there. As he looked into it, he found that the UK, once a bastion of freedom and civil liberties, is now one of the most advanced surveillance societies in the world, ranked third after Russia and China. The average UK adult is now registered on more than 700 databases and is caught many times each day by nearly five million CCTV cameras. Increasingly monitored, citizens are being turned into suspects. Within 100 yards of Bond’s home, he discovered, there were no fewer than 200 cameras.
Before going on the run, he made 80 formal requests to government and commercial organisations for the information they held on him. He piled the replies on his floor, appalled by the level of detail. The owners of the databases knew who his friends were, which websites he’d been looking at, and where he had driven his car. One commercial organisation was even able to inform him that, on a particular day in November 2006, he had “sounded angry”. It was more than he knew himself.
Many people believe that, if you have nothing to hide, there is nothing to fear from all this scrutiny. But if you resist the urge to pick your nose while others are present, or close the door when you go to the toilet, you are a privacy advocate. “When you realise that your whole life is under view,” says the Tory MP David Davis, “it’s inhibiting.”
And what if the information about us is wrong? Bond found that the DVLA still keeps on record a youthful driving offence that should have been expunged years ago. He waved it grimly at his uncomprehending daughter: “This is Daddy’s drink-driving record.” Worse was the case of a woman he met, falsely identified by the Criminal Records Bureau as a convicted shoplifter, who’d taken a year to prove her innocence. Or the man who, after someone pinched his credit card details and used them to pay for porn, was arrested, then sacked without notice; when Bond met him, he still hadn’t been able to clear his name.
As Bond became more obsessed, Katie became increasingly annoyed. They argued over filling in a form for Ivy’s nursery. “They can use this data for God knows what!” Bond yelled. “I thought, for God’s sake, no one else worries about this,” Katie remembers. “Why do we have to?” She tried to reassure him: “It’s fine. They’re not going to do anything weird with our data. If some kind of weird government comes in, we’ll opt out.” He wasn’t convinced.
In the days that followed his disappearance, Katie heard from him occasionally, using pay-as-you-go phones he’d bought specially. But he didn’t tell her where he was, because he was being followed by detectives.
What he didn’t know was that Katie was being watched, too. Hoping to use her to find him, the detectives had leapt over the garden wall one night to fit a tracking device to her car.
They also worked out where she was due to give birth and phoned the hospital, pretending to be Bond, to get details of her appointments.
As it happens, Bond had left the country, travelling to the continent on Eurostar. The investigators had guessed he might do this and impersonated Bond to phone ferry, train and airline companies that might have bookings in his name. But they missed him because he’d booked his ticket using a friend’s credit card, and changed the passenger name at the last minute.
In Belgium, Bond met a man who filmed their encounter and put the film online. Soon afterwards, the detectives found it: they knew Bond was in Belgium.
Next, he travelled to Germany. As much as possible, he paid his way with cash, and – wary of ATMs – took money out only moments before travelling. If he thought he was being followed, he got off the train.
After meeting contacts in Germany, he returned to Britain on a ferry. Soon afterwards he picked up a message on his BlackBerry from the detectives, telling him they knew he’d been to Belgium and Germany. They were goading him, hoping to get him to reply so they could trace the route of his e-mail. They did that several times, often sending messages that appeared to come from his closest friends. The messages brought him out in a sweat, but he didn’t reply.
In Kent, Bond went to his father’s house. The strain was starting to tell. He stayed in his old bedroom, dismantling all his possessions lest they concealed some kind of bugging device. The next morning there was a knock on the door. Bond told his father to keep the callers talking so he had time to jump out of the window and over the back wall. He went to some friends, borrowed a car and drove to Wales to hide in the woods – where he grew gradually more and more paranoid.
But the funny thing is this: it was Bond who persuaded the detectives to follow him. “I told them I was making a film about privacy and surveillance, and wanted to be hunted,” he tells me a year later, over cups of tea in his East London home, amid the clutter of a young family – toy bricks on the floor, mashed banana on the table. He wondered if it was possible, in surveillance Britain, to keep himself to himself for a month. “I promised I wouldn’t sue them, whatever they did, as long as they didn’t cause my family any distress. ‘We’ll have you in four days,’ they laughed.”
Bond spent a long time finding the right detectives for his project, talking to countless retired coppers before he found Duncan Mee and Cameron Gowlett of Cerberus. Ordinarily, they work as investigators for major companies and law firms, scrupulously following the letter of the law as they trail organised gangs, often in unstable parts of the world. (If they broke the law, courts would throw out their findings.) The work requires them to penetrate layer upon layer of shell companies and false identities. How hard could it be to find Bond? After all, they’re often asked to find people who might be beneficiaries of a will, and that rarely takes more than a few hours.
After Bond phoned them, the arrangements were finalised by his friend and business partner, Ashley Jones – producer of the film. All the detectives were given was a photo, and the name, David Bond.
To begin, they gathered data about him on the internet. He’d deleted his Facebook page, but they retrieved it and much more. This helped them piece together yet more information from public records that require elementary details such as addresses and dates of birth.
Pretending to be Bond, they set up a new Facebook page, using the alias Phileas Fogg, and sent messages to his friends, suggesting that this was a way to keep in touch now that he was on the run. Two thirds of them got in contact. As a result, the investigators were able to crash parties and find out more about Bond in conversation. Mee explains: “At the party, we’d say, ‘How do we know you are who you say you are? How do you know David?’ One guy said he’d been in a band with him, but we pretended to be sceptical and said, ‘Oh yeah? What instrument does he play?’”
They also went through his bins, and later his father’s. From this they were able to piece together huge amounts of detail about Bond. For instance, they guessed that he was vaguely “green” because he printed on the back of documents Katie brought home from her office.
Everything they learnt went up on a wall in their office, forming what they call Bond’s “data wake”. Then they used techniques that would not have been unfamiliar to Sherlock Holmes.
“We looked at what kind of person he was,” says Gowlett, “so we could second-guess what he might do. His family, his education, the films he’s made. He’s a literate guy so we thought of George Orwell and Jura, the island where Orwell wrote 1984. That might be somewhere David would go. We put a pin in the map.”
By this time, Bond was steadily going bonkers, looking more than ever like Kevin Spacey playing some kind of psycho. Unable to sleep for fear of the detectives, and painfully lonely, he addressed his handheld camera in the dark: “I’m really f***ing freaked out… If I don’t come back, I love you, Katie.”
But then she phoned and told him there was a problem with her pregnancy. Nothing too serious, but she needed him to come with her to the hospital. So he returned to London, booked into a cheap hotel and the next day, avoiding the main entrance, smuggled himself into the hospital. When he found Katie at the clinic they were both overjoyed.
They hadn’t guessed that the detectives knew Katie’s hospital appointments, and certainly didn’t suspect that one of the other couples in the waiting room had been planted there. Bond remembers noticing them: “I thought, ‘She doesn’t look very pregnant. I hope there’s nothing wrong with her kid.’”
Tipped off by their colleagues, Mee and Gowlett were waiting for Bond outside the hospital. He’d been on the run for 18 days.
Immediately afterwards, Bond had what he calls a “weird psychic wobble”. He accused his great friend Jones of conniving with the detectives. “I became potty, behaved in a way I’ve never behaved before.” The next day, at the debrief, Bond had difficulty hugging the detectives. “I was still in a role that felt angry towards them. They seemed smug, happy to have got their man, and I was the idiot who had lost.”
He was appalled to see how much they knew about him, amassed on that wall. “There were huge bulldog clips holding together separate parts of my life – mother, father, schooling and so on. All obvious stuff, but it was more than the sum of its parts. The weirdest thing was the pictures of my mother they’d found in a church. It gave me the heebie-jeebies. I wanted to leave the room.”
On the run, Bond had been maddened by the thought that the best way to elude the detectives was to do the last thing they would expect him to do – which also meant the last thing he would expect himself. He went round and round in circles thinking that if ideas occurred to him – no matter how outlandish – he had to reject them, because the person who had thought of them was him. He hated to admit it, but he had indeed planned a trip to Jura.
Leaving the detectives’ office, Bond used a term to describe his feelings that he’s since concluded is inappropriate, but it gives an idea how strongly he felt at the time. He called it data-rape.
The journalist and privacy campaigner Henry Porter told Bond that privacy is like eyesight, or touch: “It’s that important.” Phil Booth, national co-ordinator of the campaign No2ID, broadly agrees. “Privacy is not something that people feel, except in its absence. Remove it and you destroy something at the heart of being human.”
You might think that the detectives, having made such impressive use of information that is publicly available, would disagree. In fact, it’s precisely because they know how information can be misused that they make the best possible advocates for privacy. “We’re often asked to do TV projects and we say no,” Mee says, when I meet them in Soho. “But we liked the fact that this project was going to take the lid off the massive amount of data on us all. That’s something that bothers us personally.”
“A lot of people are giving information away voluntarily,” says Gowlett. “Look how many young children are giving up their whole lives on Facebook and Twitter – everything, their date of birth, the names of relatives and friends, where they live, when they’re going on holiday and what their political views are.
“People should think carefully how data is going to be used. Some are careful enough to opt out of the electoral roll, but when they have a baby and a nappy company comes round they give every piece of information they’re asked for. And that will be used to tie up with other databases.” Databases such as Tesco’s, which holds information on virtually every adult in the country, regardless of where they shop.
The National Health Service is unrolling a multibillion-pound IT project that will upload millions of patients’ medical records on to a database, freely accessed by 250,000 NHS staff and, to a lesser degree, by private health companies, council workers, commercial researchers and ambulance staff. Letters are going out now, strongly urging us all to allow this and making it as hard as possible to opt out.
The detectives are appalled. “That will have all your medical history on it, your date of birth and everything that has happened to you,” says Gowlett. “It’s vulnerable, and people will be able to get all that information on you in one go.”
In the film, Gowlett demonstrated how easy it already was to pretend to be Bond and get information about Katie’s antenatal arrangements. For Katie, this totally overturned her previous complacency. “I was a bit freaked out that the NHS gave away our appointments,” she says. “I know what David meant about being data-raped.”
But in the end, David Bond concludes, it’s not enough to blame politicians or corporations. “We are all partly to blame. There is no baddie, no evil genius in Whitehall stroking a white cat.” He pauses. “At least, I hope not.”
Erasing David is in cinemas nationwide from April 29, and is being broadcast on More4 in May