UK risks becoming surveillance society

The Information Commissioner has called for a public debate to draw a line on the limits of surveillance and data gathering before it gets out of control.

UK risks becoming surveillance society

Britain is becoming a surveillance society where individuals are filmed hundreds of times a day by CCTV and where companies data mine to build up profiles on customers, the Information Commissioner warned today.

Richard Thomas, a government-appointed official who reports to parliament on matters of privacy and public openness, said more and more personal information is being collected both by government agencies and commercial organisations and that people need to be aware of the dangers.

‘We are now waking up to a surveillance society. It is not just cameras on the street and things like that – it is technology monitoring our movements, our activities,’ Thomas told BBC Radio.

‘Every time we use a mobile phone, use our credit cards, go online to search on the internet, go electronic shopping, drive our cars, more and more information is being collected.’

Thomas said Britons were leaving an electronic footprint and that a debate is needed in order for clear lines to be drawn as to what is acceptable.

The Surveillance Studies Network report said official concerns about terrorism have supported the growth of surveillance which is in danger of leaving almost no actions unmonitored at some level.

Surveillance and data collection – which is expected to grow in the next decade – ranges from the US monitoring all telecommunications traffic passing through Britain to loan companies tracking people’s buying habits.

With 4.2 million CCTV cameras now spread across the country, the average Briton is captured about 300 times a day on camera.

Firms also increasingly monitor their own employees whether by tracking their movements in company vehicles via the use of GPS satellites or by counting the number of key strokes they make on their computers.

While Thomas said there were undeniable benefits to the development of the surveillance society, such as the fight against terrorism and crime, there was real concern that unfettered and excessive information harvesting could breed a climate of distrust.

‘There are dangers to the integrity of the individual. Our privacy can be invaded,’ he said.

Thomas said he wanted to generate a debate about the issue and get people thinking about what might happen in the future – such as CCTV cameras equipped with microphones, unmanned spy-in-the-sky drones and in-car devices that monitor every mile people drive.

‘There needs to be a public debate. It is not just about waking up the public, it is waking up the politicians, waking up the civil servants, making sure the police and the other law enforcement bodies are aware there are certain lines that must not be crossed.’

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