Friday, November 5, 2010

1984 and locally grown cucumbers

I have long believed I knew the source that would ultimately cause the downfall of human civilisation.

It was not, as seems to have been suspected by magazine headlines, that Brad Pitt's daughter enjoys dressing up as a boy. It was not even that googling 'Palin for President' produces serious hits (and one frankly awesome one). Nor was it that the Large Hadron Collider is planning to recreate a mini Big Bang or that there are people who will honestly freak out about this.


It was that the UK military satellite system is known as 'Skynet'.

However, I was wrong. This is merely a Hollywood decoy for the ultimate peril. The real threat comes from a far more covert operation; the UK's private health care sector. Unlike the headquarters for the Secret Intelligence Service which is pointed out on boat tours of the London Thames, few people suspect the UK even has private health insurance companies. This is what makes this idea brilliant.

And evil.

In truth, everyone in the UK is covered by the National Health Service and for emergencies, there is no competition. However, if you have a non-urgent complaint such as a nagging sports injury, you might find yourself on a waiting list just below the item 'improve the railway network'. For such times, some people (including my parents) invest in private health insurance.

While talking to my dad about his policy last weekend, I discovered that the cost of this added coverage changes depending on how much you exercise. On the surface, this seemed logical and harmless; fitter people are less likely to get sick and need to use private health facilities. It did nevertheless, raise one important question:

How do they know how much exercise you did?

The answer, unsurprisingly, was not the honesty of the client. I guess as a health service, their psychology was good enough to understand the limits of human self-interest. They turned out to have a variety of systems. The first was to offer you money off your gym membership. Once you applied for this, the gym would then record how often you went and pass this information on to the insurance company.

I chewed my lower lip. Having to 'check in' to the gym was a little bit like being back at school. I supposed with social networking sites now offering to list your location when you log in, many people did this optionally, but I still wasn't entirely sure I was comfortable with my free-time being recorded. There was also another problem:

"You don't use the gym," I pointed out to my dad. "You go out cycling. Does that not count?"

"Ah!" he replied enthusiastically. "They give you something for that!"

The 'something' turned out to be a heart monitor that you wore while you exercised and which then transmitted the data back to the insurance company. For a gadget geek like my dad, it was a good bit of fun .... of the ominously Orwellian kind. 

"It would get really worrying if an ambulance showed up at your door for a heart attack they could tell you were about to have in thirty minutes!" Dad suggested. ".... or maybe that would be reassuring. If it were a hearse that would be worse."

Yes, yes it would. I laughed. Then stopped and checked the street for stretched black cars.

And there was more. It was possible to link in your supermarket loyalty card and get an even larger discount based on the amount of fruit and vegetables you bought a week. I scratched my head, thinking this through.

"But you and Mum don't buy most of your veg from the supermarket," I said. "You get a vegetable box from the farmer's market."

"That's true," my dad pondered this. "Perhaps we could ask them to set up cameras in the house so they could see all the food we have coming in!"

My head hit the desk with a clonk. Move over Terminator, Big Brother is watching you. And it's all because the public demanded their vegetable boxes be registered.

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