It’s For Our Own Good?

BY NOEL YAXLEY

Imagine going into a restaurant for something to eat. You sit down and start to peruse the menu. Only for your order to be denied because your body mass index is too high. 

Well that nightmare may soon become reality. This is the news that from January the government will be launching a new digital anti-obesity scheme. The HeadUp app will track people’s diet and exercise regimes and reward individuals who take a more active approach to their health. The wrist worn device would work by giving people gifts like discounts and free tickets if they change their unhealthy and sedentary lifestyles. Think of it like a loyalty card – but you accumulate virtue points.

One positive is that it is cheap. When it comes to taxpayer funded public health programs, the £3 million price tag won’t break the bank. For context, the NHS races through that amount roughly every ten minutes. I can see how this will be spun: at 4p for every man, woman and child, who wouldn’t want their lives improved at that cost – even if it is their own money. It is cheap because it is a pilot scheme. If it inspires a healthier lifestyle, expect it to be launched nationwide – so its safe to say the cost will sky rocket. 

Before I address the more serious questions, we need to discuss the limitations that exist whenever new technology enters the world. Where a system exists, there will always be someone who knows how to game that system. What’s to stop someone giving their phone to a fitness-obsessed neighbour while they sit on the sofa with a KFC you purchased via means other than your phone? You can get free tickets to a music festival while you devour a bucket of fried chicken. What about cyber criminals? Imagine the fun hackers could have with this – every ‘sin’ purchase could be automatically turned into virtue points. 

The process by which we lose control of our hard won rights and freedoms is always incremental. Once we’ve allowed the state to take away a slice of our civil liberties, we acquiesce and slowly begin to give away more. Vaccine passports are a prime example – now enforceable in Scotland. If we are already being forced to show our double-jabbed papers in order to get into pubs and clubs, how long will it take before potential employers start demanding to see your exercise schedule or calorie intake before getting a job? And with news that rewards could be linked to compliance with NHS checks the possibility that you could be denied vital healthcare unless you can prove you are healthy becomes frighteningly real.

As always, the rationale behind these apps is ‘it’s for our own good’. When CCTV came into everyday use it was supposed to help protect us from dangerous criminals. We now have over 6 million CCTV cameras – one for every 10 people – issuing fines for innocuous offences such as discarding cigarette butts and feeding the pigeons. The only country with more surveillance cameras is China.

Speaking of which, there is more than a Chinese-style social credit system about this. In China its citizens can be denied access to transport if they commit minor infractions such as bad driving, jaywalking, posting fake news online or failing to recycle correctly. 

These apps have set a dangerous precedent. With Cop26 coming to an end, it is safe to say that climate change is back at the top of the government’s agenda. Is it too naive of me to think that an app like this could be used to deny people access to air travel if they’ve exceeded their annual ‘carbon allowance’? 

Those that will gain most from this Orwellian technology will inevitably be the health-conscious middle class, already accustomed to wearing these Fitbit style devices. A lot of these people already go to the gym, so it’ll be rewarding the David Lloyd class with free gym passes. Hardly part of the “levelling up agenda” as espoused by Boris Johnson and more recently the Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who seems to love the HeadUp trial.

If we consent to these authoritarian apps then what once began as a steady erosion of our liberties will start to proceed apace. The state has a duty to protect its citizens, but it should not be a moral guardian. The infantilisation of society begins when the government starts rewarding people for ‘good’ behaviour. It robs people of the freedom to choose what they put into their own body and smacks of public health paternalism.

The only way to avoid this slow descent into a surveillance state is to withdraw consent. Refuse to download anything the government asks you to. 

Should you choose to download this health app, don’t be offended if you’re refused service because Boris Johnson thinks you’re too fat.  

Noel Yaxley is a writer based in Nelson’s county. After graduating in politics, he turned his attention to writing. Noel is primarily interested in covering issues around free speech and the latest lunacy in the culture wars. He writes regularly for The Critic magazine and contributes to a number of other outlets such as Reaction and Areo magazine.