A new Channel 4 show, Hunted, challenging 14 people to live off grid reveals our privacy has never been more under threat
When I arrive to meet former City of London counter terrorism chief, Brett Lovegrove, he warns me I am being watched. On the short walk over to Westminster from the Telegraph offices in Victoria I will, according to Lovegrove, have been recorded on CCTV every step of the way. My tube journey that morning would have been privy to some of the 16,000 cameras that map every movement on the London underground network.
And then there are all the other details of my life circulating on texts, emails and social media that can be harvested with a few clicks. “This,” Lovegrove says, leaning forward so his perfectly bald head glints under the spotlight of the room we are sitting in and his polka dot tie and braces swim before my eyes, “tells me almost everything about you.”
It is a somewhat intimidating way to begin an interview, not least as to his right nods another security specialist, Captain David Blakeley, a former commander in the secretive British military unit The Pathfinders, comprised of the cream of the Parachute Regiment. But knowing what we are up to is what these men do best.
Both are part of a team of a few dozen security specialists who appear in a new Channel 4 series, Hunted, which begins next month. The premise is simple: 14 ordinary people flee their lives and try to live “off grid” for a month while evading capture. The hunters, commanded by Lovegrove, begin with only the names, addresses, photographs and dates of birth of the escapees, and attempt to track them down.
In order to locate their targets, they are allowed to use all the surveillance mechanisms available to the British security services including CCTV footage (there are up to six million cameras nationwide), automatic number plate recognition, as well as phone and email records. For anybody unsure of how effective this is, it is worth bearing in mind the photograph jokingly tweeted – and hastily deleted – last month by the National Police Air Service of comedian Michael McIntyre standing in the morning rush in Leicester Square. Despite being taken from thousands of feet above, McIntyre is instantly recognisable in the high-resolution image.
The central question the programme raises is one of the most pertinent of our times: whether it possible to avoid the all-seeing eye of the surveillance state. As is the obvious follow up: if not, how worried should we be about it?
For Lovegrove, who retired from the police in 2008, and now heads up several companies specialising in counter terrorism and surveillance, the answer is much, much more than we currently seem to be – particularly with regard to the lax scattering of our lives online. During filming, much of the tracking was done simply through mining so-called “open-source information”. This is the personal data that we either wittingly or unwittingly put out in the public domain and is available for anybody to do with as they wish, be they hacker or companies like Google and Microsoft.
“I got involved with the programme because I wanted to raise people’s awareness about the information footprints they build for themselves,” he says. “Whatsapp, Instagram, emails, mobile phones, absolutely everything we use all the time. What people are doing is creating an information footprint that they then don’t, I believe, take sufficient care of to protect themselves.
“Society should be now more involved in understanding what the state can do and be more invested in this than it is. I don’t want people to wake up in five years and say ‘Blooming hell, this is a monster’, but to play a part in shaping it.”
This surveillance extends far beyond our smartphones. Although those with an iPhone may not be aware that a programme called “Frequent Locations” buried in its privacy settings is mapping not just your every movement, but also the time and date you come and go. So-called smart meters mean our electricity and water useage is collated, smart fridges and wifi-equipped coffee machines know what we eat and drink. In February, Samsung’s smart TV sets were found to be recording conversations to share with the firm and other third parties.
Dr Richard Tynan, a technologist at Privacy International, which monitors government surveillance and was consulted by the production crew of Hunted for filming, calls this “the pattern of life”.
“It’s becoming increasingly impossible to escape creating some form of record about what you are doing and leave some form of trail that a company or government can hone in on to try and track you,” he says.
With the advent of wearable technology such as Fitbits and smart watches equipped with heart rate monitors, Dr Tynan says technology is now also being used to track not just our movements, but also our emotions. “You can detect whether somebody is excited, or down – all different trends during the day. This is all sold under the guise of cool things we can do, but the information they collect becomes a pot of gold for government, companies and hackers to mine and potentially do some nasty things with.
“People need to be aware of these threats, and if they don’t, the consequences can be quite dire. The trajectory we are currently on now which is functionality over security will essentially lead to total information awareness by any third party that wants to gain access.”
Whether or not anybody managed to escape the hunters is being kept a closely guarded secret, and when I attempt to extract it from Captain Blakeley I am quickly put in my place: “I am trained in deception,” he says with a smile I don’t quite believe.
The contestants dispersed to all corners of the country, urban and rural, and so Blakely says quickly adapted to being on the run. They bought cheap “burner” mobile phones – although even these can be traced using reverse triangulation of signals from phone masts – and were careful with the special bank accounts they were given for the series as each time it was used, it flagged up their position. Often false signals were sent to the hunters that they were in different parts of the country altogether.
While Blakeley was part of the teams on the ground, he was being supported by security experts from British and overseas intelligence agencies trawling through each person’s online footprint.
“There is a massive amount of info that can be found out about you that you have provided,” he says. “It is possible to stay off the grid, but it is getting increasingly harder every year, particularly as the powers of the state seem to be increasing.”
Despite all those technological advances, the main challenge to staying off grid remains – so the experts say – human frailty. People cannot resist getting in touch with family and friends while on the run, even though they know it can give the game away.
“The more time you are on your own, the more likely you are to make mistakes and the more affected you become by paranoia as well,” Blakeley says.
We are undone, in the end, by our need for contact and that same desire to share and communicate online may be dismantling the freedoms of those of us who do not even know we are being pursued. Big Brother isn’t just watching; he is one step behind and gaining.
• Hunted begins on Thursday 10 September on Channel 4, 9pm