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Last Updated: Monday, 26 March 2007, 12:48 GMT 13:48 UK
Hi-tech 'threat' to private life
CCTV cameras in London, Getty
There are more than four million CCTV cameras in the UK
Bombs triggered by the presence of people with specific biometric traits may soon be feasible, warns a report.

Written by the Royal Academy of Engineering, the report looks at how technology is eroding personal privacy.

It shows how abuse of technology can expose people to harm by, for instance, terrorists crafting bombs that use the biometric data stored on passports to target specific nationalities.

It urges people to get more involved in the ways data about them is gathered.

Fail safe

Professor Nigel Gilbert, one of the report's authors, said the idea was not to scare people but to show what could happen when novel technologies and personal privacy interact.

"No technology is 100% perfect, and no engineer will tell you that any technology is 100% perfect," said Professor Gilbert.

"We need to think very carefully about contingency plans," he said, "about what can go wrong and what we are going to do about it when it does go wrong."

Instead of simply accepting that technology erodes privacy, the report suggests that designers, individuals and governments should work harder to find ways of making life more secure.

For instance, said Professor Gilbert, it is accepted that buying via an electronic transaction means surrendering information that allows an individual to be identified.

Supermarket shelves, BBC
Shops only need to know what you bought, not who you are
In truth, he said, all a merchant needed was an assurance that the customer was old enough to buy a particular good or service and that they had enough funds to pay.

Similarly, with supermarket loyalty cards, customers are forced to hand over information that identifies them individually. This was despite the fact, said Professor Gilbert, that all the store really needed to know was what items were being bought.

"These are apparently similar things, and are all cases where it would seem people are being required to give up more identifying information than is necessary," he added.

In a bid to combat abuse, the report recommends the creation of a digital charter that outlines the rights an individual has to manage, share and protect the data being collected about them.

Properly engineered technology should increase both privacy and security, said Professor Gilbert.

Among other recommendations, the report calls for the beefing up of penalties for people and companies that flout data protection laws. At the moment, warned the report, the penalties were "close to trivial".

It also calls for people and communities to get involved with the way that data is gathered, and how intrusive technologies are policed.

It suggests that CCTV cameras could be overseen by the communities they serve or the people they watch.

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