I usually give a wide berth to self-styled cutting edge "investigative journalism" TV programmes but I did tune into BBC3's Mischief: Your Identity for Sale last night, after flicking through the channels and finding nothing remotely of interest anywhere else. It began with reporter Rebecca Wilcox bringing her laptop computer to a couple of security experts and discovering to her embarrassment that it had reams and reams of sextracker cookies. She had apparently never even heard of cookies - of the web tracking variety - before.
Having expected to turn off in disgust within minutes I found myself watching it through to the end. It did irritate badly at times with the compulsory sensationalist expose style. But Ms Wilox's innocent abroad turned innocent determined crusador, in pursuit of some of the big data harvesters, just about carried off a basic introduction to some of the problems associated with the routine mass digital surveillance that goes on in the virtual shadows of our modern world.
Richard Clayton of FIPR and University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory fame, came across particularly well in explaining the kind of tracking that goes on through social networking sites like Facebook. Ms Wilcox unfortunately went out of her way to make the chap from the Information Commissioner's Office look bad. Then she gave Michael Wills, the government minister who has just been put in charge of managing the regulation of data, a free ride; by not following through and asking the hard questions once she had got her shot of the embarrassed minister looking at the credit cards she could take out in his name. I guess that would have been expecting too much given the nature of the programme.
She succeeded in making the guy from Sky look smug and devious as he had the security people keep her away until he could dig up some dirt on the BBC, in a 'speck in my eye, plank in yours' kinda way. The BBC do send junk mail too but not seemingly in the underhand opt-out way that Sky do - Sky even put out a leaflet telling customers they'd have to ring a premium rate phone number to opt out of receiving their junk mail. Tescos got a going over too when someone at their store card call centre gave out the address linked with a card number to help Ms Wilcox who claimed she wanted to find the owner of a set of keys. Tescos promised to revise their procedures and training saying it shouldn't have happened as operators are already told not to give out information in such circumstances. I feel sorry for the woman who gave out the information.
In any case, if you've had trouble getting through to friends blind to the process of data harvesting, personal profiling and selling of personal data there are harder places to start than to get them to watch this light affair on the iPlayer sometime in the next week. Skip the bits in the Information Commissioner's office and the section on the guy whose credit card number found its way onto a child abuse website leading to him getting arrested during operation ore.