The global engineer
E&T on tracking, monitoring, scanning and other surveillance technologies making privacy of travelling virtually impossible.
We've all become more private. Whereas once we used to congregate on street corners and chat with friends on park benches, now we're far more likely to be in our homes, in front of a screen, on our own.
Travelling has also become lonelier. When I first went on trips, I used to stay in a bed-and-breakfast, sharing a bathroom with every other stranger on my floor. Today, everything is en-suite. It would be considered very odd to share facilities.
Yet at the same time high-tech travel innovations open our suitcases, our spending patterns and even our souls to public scrutiny. There's no covering your tracks any more. Technology strips us naked, scorns our credit status when we try and buy a beautiful gold bracelet in Beirut, and lets the government know if we're going for a dirty weekend in Denmark.
Nothing is left untouched by this very filleting. Full-body scanners, currently being tried out at Manchester airport, can see what's hidden in your deepest pockets and detect what you're wearing underneath your suit. They work by beaming electromagnetic waves on to passengers while they stand in a dedicated booth. An image is then created from the reflected energy, giving an impression of what the passenger looks like naked. Hardly surprising that some civil liberty campaigners have likened it to be being strip-searched.
You can no longer move without being monitored. Last year, the British Government started to build a database to track and hold the international travel records of 60 million British citizens. The intelligence centre, housed in an industrial estate outside Manchester, is intended to store, among other things, seat numbers and travel itineraries for all 250 million passenger movements in and out of the country each year.
Don't think you can avoid airports and take to the waters to avoid detection. Even day-trippers to France on a ferry will be on the list. Of course, there have been EU attempts to quell such state curiousity. But in terrifying Big Brother language, the UK Borders Agency persists: 'We will collect the biographical information contained in the section of a passport that can be read by machine. We will also collect details of the service on which a passenger is travelling, for example the flight number. We will also collect other passenger information, for example, details of reservations and payment. The carrier will be legally required to collect this information and provide it to us as part of the check-in process.'
With our check-ins so closely tracked, you can hardly blame passenger for wanting to check out. The need for a place of our own becomes all the more important - and private jet flight is becoming increasingly popular. For those wishing to shun the Manchester body scanners - and the proposed ones at Heathrow - a 14-seater Dornier 328 now flies from Oxford Airport. Operator Icejet declares that it's not only businessmen who see the benefit of a cabin all to themselves. 'Leisure travellers are also catching on to the benefits of private charter with the inherent delays and poor passenger experiences at major airports,' it says. So ironically, while airport technology is exposing our lives in a way it never has before, its use is also pushing us towards seeking out more privacy.
Recognising this trend, Captain's Choice Tour has introduced an Exotic Wonders by Private Jet brochure, launching in November from the Harrods Private Terminal at Luton Airport. The ultimate tour within this ultimate brochure is the Round the World by Private Jet 38-day tour, travelling in a 92-seat specially configured Boeing 757 - business class only, of course. How you'll manage to avoid being surrounded by other people at the stops made in Syria, Nepal, Sydney, Easter Island and the Galapagos is unclear. But privacy does have a price. The tour costs £13,495 per person - but only if you share a room, so it won't be so very private after all. For that, you'd need to fork out for a single supplement.
Hotels are also offering themselves as places to cut yourself off from the throng. For the first time this year, The Bentley in London can be hired out in its entirety, so there's no chance of your having to share a chambermaid or not be able to get a drink at the bar. There are private elevators on each floor, bypassing the public lobby in case anyone wanders in. It's an odd idea, as I always thought an attraction in travel is chance encounters with strangers.
It's an odd kind of privacy we now seek. We don't seem to mind that much that the government knows if we're going to Calais for lunch and a man behind the full body scanner can see beneath our underwear. But heaven forbid that we'd have to share a bed and breakfast bathroom with someone we didn't know.