â€œWe regard privacy and the application of executive and legislative restraint to the use of surveillance and data collection powers as necessary conditions for the exercise of individual freedom and liberty.â€ Not the words of a committed civil libertiesâ€™ campaigner but the considered opinion of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, charged with an inquiry into “the impact that government surveillance and data collection have upon the privacy of citizens and their relationship with the State.”
In its report â€˜Surveillance: Citizens and the Stateâ€™, published last week, the cross party committee recognise that mass surveillance has the potential to erode privacy, which is an essential pre-requisite to the exercise of individual freedom. So to what extent should surveillance and data collection be permissible within the current constitutional framework of the UK?
Britain leads the world in the use of CCTV. Surveillance technology is used to achieve specific ends, such as maintaining public order, anticipating and meeting social needs, and responding to market trends and consumer demand. National security, public safety, the prevention and detection of crime, and the control of borders lead to the use of a wide range of surveillance techniques and the collection and analysis of large quantities of personal data. As a result, surveillance has become an inescapable part of life. Every time you make a telephone call, send an email, browse the internet, walk down the local high street, your actions may be monitored and recorded.
The committee recognises that there are advantages. Protecting the public is a duty of government. The potential of being able to obtain public services from central or local government quickly, reliably, and efficiently is some justification for â€œelectronic governmentâ€. But there are disadvantages. â€œPrivacy, trust in the state, and the security of our personal information [are] all now at risk owing to the growth in surveillance, and there [is] a pressing need to take the potential pitfalls of surveillance seriously.â€ The report is particularly critical of the current arrangements that allow the state to store and retain indefinitely the DNA data of anyone questioned by the police. The committee are disturbed that there are few restrictions and no clear legal limit to the use of public area CCTV cameras and the data collected by them.
The report quotes police evidence that â€œcitizens are very happy to support the
development of surveillance and of data acquisition mechanisms that achieve a
balance between privacy and safety.” But where does that balance lie? The report is concerned that the long standing traditions of privacy and individual freedom, which are vital for democracy, are being undermined, an echo of President Obamaâ€™s words: â€œAs for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.â€