Categorized | Civil Law, Civil Liberties

You are still being watched

You are still being watched

Last Thursday Christopher Graham, the UK Information Commissioner, sent his report on the state of surveillance, and recommendations for action, to the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee. While welcoming strengthening of the data protection regime, he said that technological and societal developments mean that the risks to individual privacy remain real. The collection of personal information has become increasingly central to the activities of organisations in both the public and private sectors.

The study by the Surveillance Studies Network, which was requested by the Commons home affairs committee, is an update to their findings in 2006, which warned of the dangers of a surveillance society. Introducing the latest report, the Commissioner, said: “Many of the new laws that come into force every year in the UK have implications for privacy at their heart. My concern is that after they are enacted there is no one looking back to see whether they are being used as intended, or whether the new powers were indeed justified in practice.” One example of this is the use of covert CCTV surveillance by local councils to monitor parents in school catchment area disputes under powers designed to assist in crime prevention and detection. But he welcomed the fact that the recent change of Government had led to significant rolling back in some areas of state data collection, such as the abolition of the National Identity Register (NIR), the controversial database that formed the heart of the now abandoned identity cards scheme, and compliance with the European Court of Human Rights ruling on the National DNA Database.

The report says that some technologies have gone from being a subject of speculation to being in mainstream use in many different areas. The national roll-out of automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) highlights the expansion of video surveillance and analysis, and the linking or sharing of data from different databases. The blanket requirement by some licensing authorities to install CCTV in all licensed premises irrespective of need, the fingerprinting of passengers using common departure lounges at airports, and the creation of  blacklist databases are all causes for concern. ‘Function creep’ is the big danger, involving new uses for technologies or data beyond what was originally envisaged or legitimated. For instance, since 2005 the DVLA is said to have raised an estimated £44 million by selling details on 18 million registrations.

CCTV has also continued to find new applications. Middlesbrough police announced that they had fitted 7 of their 158 CCTV cameras with loud speakers enabling control-room staff to talk to those they were monitoring to shame low-level offenders into conformity. The Home Office initiated a £3 million national roll-out of body-worn CCTV to police forces after a trial in Plymouth. The deployment of unmanned helicopter drones in UK civilian airspace for policing purposes has begun with the recent trial conducted by Merseyside Police. The report could have included Greater Manchester Police’s £80,000 balloon, called the Eagle Eye Blimp , found wanting after just 18 surveillance sorties because it couldn’t cope with Manchester rain. Other concerns include body scanning, workplace monitoring, abuse of social networking, databrokers and the new breed of social geodemographic systems exemplified by Google Latitude.

The Commissioner makes several recommendations, including a requirement for a privacy impact assessment to be presented during the parliamentary process, robust privacy safeguards as the default setting when new on line services are offered to individuals, and increased post legislative scrutiny of legislation. The report concludes: “It will remain an important question, however, whether the current legal instruments, at UK and European levels, including specific data protection legislation as well as broader human rights law, are robust enough to limit surveillance and curb the excesses of data collection, or whether legal reform and better integration of legal and other regulatory instruments will be the linchpin upon which much else depends.” The full text of ‘Information Commissioner’s report to Parliament on the state of surveillance’ can be found at:
http://www.ico.gov.uk/~/media/documents/library/Corporate/Research_and_reports/surveillance_report_for_home_select_committee.ashx

This post was written by:

- who has written 462 posts on Upper Case – The Anya Legal Journal.

Mike Gribbin is a retired Civil Servant with wide experience, including the drafting and implementation of Parliamentary legislation and regulations. He is the editor of “Criminal Offences Handbook”, a uniquely comprehensive guide to more than one thousand ways to fall foul of UK criminal law. He is Editor of the Upper Case Legal Journal and has been writing blog posts for the past eight years.

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