Page last updated at 17:13 GMT, Friday, 6 February 2009

Warning over 'surveillance state'

Lord Norton: "We are a world leader in surveillance"

Electronic surveillance and collection of personal data are "pervasive" in British society and threaten to undermine democracy, peers have warned.

CCTV cameras and the DNA database were two examples of threats to privacy, the Lords constitution committee said.

It called for compensation for people subject to illegal surveillance.

The government said CCTV and DNA were "essential" to fight crime but campaign group Liberty said abuses of power mean "even the innocent have a lot to fear".

'Orwellian'

Civil liberties campaigners have warned about the risks of a "surveillance society" in which the state acquires ever-greater powers to track people's movements and retain personal data.

Controversial government plans for a database to store details of people's phone calls and e-mails were put on hold late last year after they were branded "Orwellian".

There can be no justification for this gradual but incessant creep towards every detail about us being recorded and pored over by the state
Lord Goodlad

Ministers are consulting on the plan, which would involve the details but not the content of calls and internet traffic being logged, saying it is essential to fighting terrorism.

The Department for Communities and Local Government said it had written to local councils to ask them to ensure surveillance powers were used "proportionately" and not for tackling minor offences such as dog fouling.

A spokesman said: "It is right and important that councils have these powers of surveillance - they are an effective means of tackling real problems that can blight communities, such as rogue traders, fly tippers and loan sharks.

"But the public must have confidence in who has these powers and that they are used in a proportionate and proper way which is why we are working closely with the home office and local government to develop training and guidance."

In its report, the Lords constitution committee said growth in surveillance by both the state and the private sector risked threatening people's right to privacy, which it said was "an essential pre-requisite to the exercise of individual freedom".

People were often unaware of the scale of personal information held and exchanged by public bodies, it said.

"There can be no justification for this gradual but incessant creep towards every detail about us being recorded and pored over by the state," committee chairman and Tory peer Lord Goodlad said.

'Misuse of powers'

Among areas of most concern were the growth of CCTV cameras, of which there are now an estimated four million in the UK.

The UK is said by privacy campaigners to have the most cameras per head of population in the world, but no definitive figures are available.

According to a 2004 European Commission report, Britain has the highest density of CCTV cameras in Europe. It found 40,000 cameras monitored public areas in 500 British towns and cities, compared to fewer than 100 cameras in 15 German cities and no open street CCTV at all in Denmark.

In its report, the Lords committee said the use of cameras should be regulated on a statutory basis in the UK, with a legally binding code of practice governing their use.

There was evidence of abuse of surveillance powers by some councils, with cameras wrongly being "used to spy on the public over issues such as littering".

The UK's DNA database is the "largest in the world", the report concluded, with more than 7% of the population having their samples stored, compared with 0.5% in the US.

KEY RECOMMENDATIONS
Judicial oversight of surveillance
Privacy impact assessments for new data collection schemes
Better regulation of the DNA database and reassessment of time samples are held
Binding code of practice for use of CCTV cameras
More powers for information commissioner and new parliamentary committee to study data issues

Police in England, Wales and Northern Ireland can take DNA and fingerprints from anybody arrested on suspicion of a recordable offence and the samples can be held indefinitely whether people are charged or not.

Campaigners say anyone not convicted of a crime should have their DNA removed, a position endorsed by the European Court of Human Rights in a recent ruling in the case of two British men.

Ministers should comply with this ruling quickly, peers said, and legislate for a new regulatory framework for the database.

Other recommendations include a requirement for any new data scheme to be preceded by a public assessment of its impact on privacy and for the information commissioner to be given powers to carry out inspections on private companies.

"The huge rise in surveillance and data collection by the state and other organisations risks undermining the long-standing tradition of privacy and individual freedom which are vital for democracy," Lord Goodlad added.

"If the public are to trust that information about them is not being improperly used, there should be much more openness about what data is collected, by whom and how it is used."

'Right balance'

The government said CCTV and DNA were "essential crime fighting tools" but acknowledged personal data should only be used in criminal investigations where necessary.

"The key is to strike the right balance between privacy, protection and sharing of personal data," a Home Office spokesman said.

"This provides law enforcement agencies with the tools to protect the public... while ensuring there are effective safeguards and a solid legal framework to protect civil liberties."

Over the past seven years we've been told 'nothing to hide, nothing to fear' but a stream of data bungles and abuses of power suggest that even the innocent have a lot to fear
Shami Chakrabarti, Liberty

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has rejected claims of a surveillance society and called for "common sense" guidelines on CCTV and DNA.

She recently announced a consultation on possible changes to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, under which public bodies can conduct covert surveillance and access data, to clarify who can use such powers and prevent "frivolous" investigations.

The Conservatives said the government's approach to personal privacy was "reckless".

"Ministers have sanctioned a massive increase in surveillance over the last decade, at great cost to the taxpayer, without properly assessing either its effectiveness or taking adequate steps to protect the privacy of perfectly innocent people," said shadow justice secretary Dominic Grieve.

Human rights campaigners Liberty welcomed the report.

Director Shami Chakrabarti said: "Liberty's postbag suggests that the House of Lords is more in touch with public concerns that our elected government.

"Over the past seven years we've been told 'nothing to hide, nothing to fear' but a stream of data bungles and abuses of power suggest that even the innocent have a lot to fear."

Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, urged the government to "reassert" its control over the use of data.

He said: "Governments tend to think that gathering new information on citizens is a good thing. But that's not true if our privacy is undermined and our data isn't secure.

"We need to see privacy by design: you can't bolt on privacy at the end of big government IT projects, we need privacy safeguards built into systems right at the start."

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SEE ALSO
Giant database plan 'Orwellian'
15 Oct 08 |  UK Politics
Warning over phone calls database
15 Jul 08 |  UK Politics
Government defeat on DNA database
05 Nov 08 |  UK Politics

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