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09 June 2008, 09:20

UK Parliament rejects "surveillance society" concept

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The House of Commons Home Affairs Committee has released the results of a public consultation on the growth of surveillance and personal data gathering in the UK. In its report (PDF) published 8 June, the committee explicitly rejects "crude characterisations of our society as a surveillance society in which all collections and means of collecting information about citizens are networked and centralised in the service of the state". However the report suggests that it might become one "unless trust in the Government’s intentions in relation to data and data sharing is preserved." Nevertheless, the committee's analysis of some 280 pages of submissions (PDF) indicates that commercial incentives for personal data gathering loom at least as large as government purposes. Technology promoters and vendors, providers of personalised services, advertisers and supply chain management all have interests in profiling of citizens. Cases in point are the Nectar card – used by up to 50 per cent of UK shoppers, the Phorm personalised advert serving system and Google's user records.

The report finds many benefits to the public that come directly from data gathering, pointing out that in the course of our day to day activities we all leave an electronic footprint from such things as card transactions and loyalty schemes without paying much attention to the wider implications. However in both public and private sectors "the trend … is a standardisation of the information requested with a tendency to collect information which may identify an individual even where this is not needed in order to provide or improve services." For this reason the committee recommends "… the Government should move to curb the drive to collect more personal information and establish larger databases," pointing out that more information does not necessarily result in better decisions – government should "adopt a principle of data minimisation: it should collect only what is essential, to be stored only for as long as is necessary." The committee commends the Information Commissioner for his work on Privacy Impact Assessments, but expresses concerns that they could in practice end up as mere bureaucratic exercises.

In addition to the practical effects of mistakes or misuse of data, Information Commissioner Richard Thomas identified concerns including intrusion into private life, loss of personal autonomy or dignity, arbitrary decision-making about individuals, or their stigmatisation or exclusion, the growth of excessive organisational power. He suggested "Whether using the National Identity Register or by other means, as you go down this route of drawing all the threads together then incrementally the big picture builds up … the Government talks about public services being more citizen-centric, and that is welcome, but is anyone seeing it from the point of view of the citizen in terms of all this information being collected and shared about them?"


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