Electronic government could hamper privacy

Government plans to go digital could threaten individual privacy according to the Data Protection Registrar Elizabeth France.

The government plans to digitise 100 percent of its services by 2008 to "save money" and cut down on bureaucracy. Perceived benefits for citizens include payment of benefits and tax online, and 24-hour access to government information.

In her annual report to Parliament however, France laid out some of her concerns with the plans.

The government wants to make services more efficient by limiting the number of times information (a change of address for example) is given to government departments. According to France the balance between efficiency and personal freedom is a delicate one. "How can this process become simpler for the citizen without at the same time making it easier for the state to acquire power over the citizen by aggregating all the information held by different arms into a single virtual database?" she said in her annual report.

John Woulds, director of operations at the office of the Data Protection Registrar thinks citizens "might find it more difficult to exercise their rights" under the government's plans. Smartcards and digital photographs on driving licenses are highlighted as potential areas for the abuse of data. "Photographs on driving licenses will mean the government effectively has digitised mug shots of a large percentage of the population, raising questions about how widely they will be made available to the police for example," he said. "The drift of information collected for one purpose into other areas like commercial use is the worry," he added.

Head of campaign group Privacy International Simon Davies believes the onset of electronic government will be "a fundamental attack on privacy". "Every proposition this government has propounded has been fundamentally destructive to privacy and shows an infatuation with surveillance," he said. "Day by day we lose more privacy as we move into the electronic era."

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