BBC OnePanorama


Page last updated at 17:08 GMT, Friday, 24 October 2008 18:08 UK

You can run... but can you hide?

Panorama reporter Simon Boazman speaks about his surprise at how readily available his personal details are

Is Britain on its way to becoming a surveillance society. Or has it already arrived?

We are the CCTV capital of the world and more data is being held on us than ever before, with our phones, our computers, our bankcards and even our cars busily giving away information about where we go and what we do.

You only need one of the hundreds of thousands of users to be careless or corrupt or downright criminal and bad things can start to go wrong

Prof Ross Anderson

The government gathers more data on us than anyone else and has big plans to collect even more.

The Home Office has drawn up plans for the creation of a single central database containing details, though not the content, of every e-mail, text and mobile phone call made in the UK and of every web page browsed.

The government says no decision on the database proposal, which is expected to be included in the upcoming draft Communications Bill, has yet been made.

But in a speech on 15 October, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said a consultation on the controversial plan would be held in the New Year.

'Orwellian nightmare'

Supporters of the central database say it is necessary as part of the government's ongoing battle against serious crime and terrorism.

But critics have condemned the database as an Orwellian nightmare, an invasion of privacy incompatible with a free country.

In You can run... Panorama takes a look at just how much privacy we actually have in Britain.

Hand and computer mouse, Eyewire

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To put this to the test reporter Simon Boazman sets about finding out how much data is held on him, whether it is secure and whether he can reduce his data trail.

He discovers how his mobile phone, his laptop and his car give up his secrets, how his hospital records are passed outside the NHS and even his child is about to become a number on a government database.

Perhaps stockpiles of personal information would not worry people so much if it could be guaranteed that the data would remain safe and would only be seen by those who need to see it.

But public confidence in the government's ability to look after data has been dented in recent months with high profile failures, including the loss of a CD carrying all the personal details of every child benefit claimant.


And as Panorama reports, even without discs getting lost in the post or files being left on trains, getting confidential information out of a government database is frighteningly easy.

To see just how easy, Boazman turns to a blagger - someone who used to earn money tricking information out of clerks and call centre staff who have access to databases.

Armed with some basic details about our reporter - his name, date of birth, address and company name - the blagger is able to find out a surprising amount, including Boazman's tax and salary records for the last six years.

Newspaper headline about data losses
The government has made headlines for data failures

As the programme reports, the selling of this kind of confidential information is now a thriving global business, with blaggers acting as privacy busters for hire through online auction sites.

And this black market for our data may be set to expand - from January the government will start rolling out a huge database called Contact Point containing a file on each of England's eleven million children.

Every file in this compulsory national database will hold a child's name, address, date of birth, unique ID number, parents' address, school, doctor and any other services that are working with the child.

Potentially over 300,000 people who work with children will have access to Contact Point and, as Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at Cambridge University, tells the programme, "you only need one of the hundreds of thousands of users to be careless or corrupt or downright criminal and bad things can start to go wrong".

Single NHS database

In fact, according to the blagger on the trail of Boazman's details, the consolidation of databases nationwide is making the job of finding out confidential information even easier though departments are stepping up training to combat that .

The biggest state system of them all is the National Health Services' National programme For IT, currently being rolled out across England.

CCTV camera at Piccadilly Circus
The use CCTV cameras has grown year on year in Britain

It is one of the most ambitious computer projects ever undertaken - replacing hundreds of different computer systems spread across hospitals and GP practices with new, compatible versions that will allow NHS staff anywhere in England to access a patient's medical records.

The programme reports on a controversial practice which sees hundreds of millions of hospital records, which can identify patients, passing outside the NHS.

The benefits to research and disease prevention could be huge, but at what cost to privacy?

And as our reporter finds, stopping your own records from joining this flow is simply not possible without opting out of the NHS system as a whole.

Records error

The National programme For IT also raises concerns about the accuracy of the information being held in our files.

Boazman speaks to Helen Wilkinson, who with the development of the scheme and after a 20-year career in administration in the health service, became worried about where her medical data was held and whether it was correct.

As a result she requested her medical files and was horrified to discover that she had been incorrectly listed as having had treatment for alcoholism.

All the elements of data capture and surveillance featured in the programme have clear benefits for citizens, but is anybody asking what the cumulative effect on our privacy is?

You can run... but can you hide? On Monday 27 October at 8.30pm on BBC One.

HM Revenue and Customs statement
31 Oct 08 |  Panorama
Children's Minister statement
24 Oct 08 |  Panorama
Giant database plan 'Orwellian'
15 Oct 08 |  UK Politics
NHS memory stick found in street
16 Sep 08 |  England
Laptop with patient files stolen
18 Jul 08 |  Tayside and Central
Police admit to lost data blunder
15 Sep 08 |  West Midlands

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