The undercover quanitifed self

Hamish MacGibbon writes in the London Review of Books (subscribers only) about his father, James, who was a spy for the Russians during and after World War II. There’s an account of the papers MacGibbon eventually gained access to which detailed the security services’ monitoring of the family during this period:

Three years after [James’s] death in February 2000, and after several fruitless inquiries to MI5 and MI6 to find out the nature of his official duties, my brother and sister and I (thanks to the intervention of our assiduous MP Frank Dobson) were invited to visit an office in Admiralty Arch. There a civil servant showed us a row of 20 filing boxes containing hundreds of MI5 and Special Branch records on our parents going back to the mid-1930s, though most were from the late 1940s and early 1950s: internal MI5 and police correspondence and memos, intercepted letters, phone taps, listening devices and physical surveillance. They included an entertaining report by a Special Branch officer, posing as a removal firm employee, who was searching the luggage on a van moving house for the MacGibbon family: this is what led to the police visit in 1940. Security observations on James during the war were inconsequential. They became more focused in 1947, when an intercepted phone call from Party headquarters in King Street informed the Security Service that James had a prominent role as secretary of the Communist Party Centenary Pageant that would take place the following year. This activated mail and phone intercepts at our house in St John’s Wood. Two years later interest in James suddenly became intense.

…James was assumed to have been a spy, or at least a talent spotter, for Russian intelligence, and on the grounds that he might lead the security service to other spies, his case was considered of the highest possible priority. This was the time (two years before Burgess and Maclean absconded) when hugely damaging intelligence was haemorrhaging to the Soviet Union. Until MI5 interest began to wane in the mid-1950s, every letter to our house and James’s firm was opened and copied, every phone call was monitored, nearly every day James was tailed by a team of “watchers”. A device was placed in our house (probably a microphone inserted in the telephone, diverting conversations to an MI5 listener). It recorded discussions between my parents, some concerning financial difficulties for the firm and doubts, expressed by my mother, about comrades in the UK (“I wish they were more like Robert Kee”), and scepticism about developments in Eastern Europe and North Korea. The watchers were good at their job, accurately picking up conversations in pubs, railway stations and elsewhere (“MacGibbon arrived at Liverpool Street with boy and girl, found he had forgotten a sail and sent the boy home by taxi to collect it and take the next train to Woodbridge”).

It struck me that this kind of detailed record of a person’s life is exactly the kind of thing some of us do intentionally these days: logging, checking in, aggregating, recording, archiving…

James MacGibbon had part of a government service discreetly recording his life for him, with no effort (and possibly even knowledge) required on his part. Not only that, but all these details were archived for decades, a problem people recording their digital trails in the 21st century have yet to solve.

I assume that these days the security services record their observations digitally. I wonder what their long-term archiving is like, compared to the paper files of twentieth century. In fifty years’ time will those records, those undercover examples of third-person life-logging, still be readable by their subjects’ descendants?

27 Jun 2011 at Twitter

  • 11:21am: What’s the point of being freelance if you can’t stay home and take it easy occasionally?
  • 12:42pm: A moment for friend’s survey? @AnnieFeighery: Which sectors r family-friendly for an emerging global health researcher? http://bit.ly/mKhywv
  • 01:06pm: London/urbanism geeks! This Sunday at RFH, “Rebuilding the City: 1951 and now”: http://bit.ly/iwRJeX (I can’t make it, booo.)
  • 01:21pm: @AnnieFeighery Pleasure! I hope it’s useful :)
  • 04:41pm: @blech I’m not sure the City of London (for one part of this city) would officially endorse that quote, unfortunately.
  • 04:48pm: @blech There’s plenty of time left to move to Berlin (or anywhere else) some day!
  • 04:52pm: Double “long, sweaty afternoon of first time Webfaction Django WSGI server configuration success” fist punch!
  • 05:29pm: @mildlydiverting It’s very, erm, “specialist”.
  • 10:08pm: A slid open door / concrete / a still warm still, still night / @mattsheret’s last.fm radio / typing.

27 Jun 2011 in Writing

Using virtualenv with Django on WebFaction
Getting a Django site running on WebFaction hosting using virtualenv.

27 Jun 2011 in Links

On this day I was reading