Page last updated at 12:44 GMT, Monday, 27 October 2008

You can run... but can you hide?

As the CCTV capital of the world and with more data being held on us than ever before, Britain has been called a surveillance society. For Panorama's programme You Can Run... But Can You Hide? reporter Simon Boazman set out to find out just how much privacy exists in Britain today, how much data is held about him as an individual, if that information is secure and if he could cut his data trail.

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

Before making this film, privacy is something that I just assumed I had. When I closed my front door at night and relaxed it was in the belief that my private life was just that, private.

I soon started to learn otherwise.

Nearly all aspects of my everyday life are being monitored. The things I buy, the websites I visit, the phone calls I make and even the journeys I take are all being documented.

So what control do I actually have over how my life, and the lives of my family, are monitored? And how safely stored is the information gathered?

Confidence dented

Until recently, when it came to the question of government surveillance many of us had the attitude that if we have done nothing wrong then we have nothing to fear.

Simon Boazman speaks about how readily available his personal details are

But a series of newspaper headlines revealing that the government has lost huge swathes of our personal data - from 25 million child benefits records here, to a few million drivers' details there - has got many of us wondering if, actually, there is quite a lot to fear.

As I found out, even without discs getting lost in the post or files being left on trains, it is frighteningly easy to get hold of confidential information held on a government database.

To see just how easy, I turned to someone who used to earn money conning clerks and call centre staff into giving him information from the databases they can access - a dark art called "blagging".

The selling of confidential personal data, obtained either legally or illegally, is now a thriving global business, with blaggers acting as privacy busters for hire through online auction sites.

The customers for our data are many - insurance companies, debt collectors, divorce lawyers - all trying to get information on you.

BBC payroll tricked

To start the blagger off I gave him some of my basic details - my name, address and date of birth.

Unbelievably in a couple of hours and with just a few phone calls he had managed to get hold of some of my most personal government records.

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

By pretending to be me, he first tricked the BBC Payroll department, run by a company called Steria, into providing him with my National Insurance number.

He was then able to call up HM Revenue and Customs and again, simply by claiming to be me, to obtain all my salary and tax records for the last six years.

His secret method was nothing more than charm, confidence and a few fake accents. So much for data protection!

I found it really disturbing how easily he violated my personal data security.

This became even more concerning when I learnt about government plans to place my seven-year-old daughter on a national database. A database which until now I had no idea would include her.

Super database plan

Contactpoint, due to be launched next year, will be a compulsory database containing key data on all of England's eleven million children and it will be accessible to 300,000 of the people who work with our children.

Hand and computer mouse, Eyewire
A single database of every web page browsed in the UK could be coming

Despite government assurances of appropriate security, after what I have learned any system that holds my daughter's details has me concerned.

And the British government is not standing still.

It recently announced controversial plans for a single communications database that will contain a record, 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 Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said a consultation on the plan will be held in the New Year.

The delicate balancing act between national security and civil liberties may be tipping irreversibly in the wrong direction.

So what can you do if you do not agree with the direction of our surveillance society is going? Can you opt out?

Well even if you were prepared give up access to any government services including medical care, worked only in the cash economy, did not send your children to school, ditched your mobile phone, your credit and debit cards, and stopped using the internet or your car - all this would still not be enough.

You would still have to avoid the millions of CCTV cameras that cover the country.

So maybe it's time for those of us with nothing to hide to consider just how much information does the government need, and how much is too much?

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

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