Lords: Put a stop to 'pervasive' snooping

A House of Lords committee calls for new powers to combat a culture of surveillance that has seen the UK become the most spied-upon country in the world
Written by Nick Heath, Contributor

New powers are needed to combat a culture of "pervasive" surveillance that has seen the UK become the most spied-upon country in the world, a House of Lords committee said on Thursday.

UK residents are now watched by more about four million CCTV cameras, according to the chairman of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, Lord Goodlad. In addition, the details of seven per cent of the population are held in the National DNA Database (NDNAD) — more than any other country, he said.

At the same time, national databases designed to hold personal information on nearly every UK citizen are being set up across Whitehall, from the NHS Care Records Service to the ID cards National Identity Register, according to a report by the committee released today.

Businesses and banks are gathering data on the public from sources such as CCTV, CRM systems and the tracking of web-browsing behaviour and of loyalty cards, the report says. It added that the government also wants access to this data.

"Every time we make a telephone call, send an email, browse the internet, or even walk down our local high street, our actions may be monitored and recorded," the report said.

 "There can be no justification for this gradual but incessant creep towards every detail about us being recorded and pored over by the state", Goodlad said in a statement.

Citing instances where councils have spied on citizens when investigating littering, the report says that any victims of "unlawful surveillance" by a local authority should receive compensation and that local authority snooping under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act should be monitored by the courts.

Any future surveillance or data processing scheme suggested by Whitehall should be closely scrutinised by a dedicated parliamentary body and the information commissioner before it goes ahead, the report said. This should be paired with legally binding guidelines on the operation of all CCTV systems, it added.

The report also said the government should act swiftly to comply with last December's ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that innocent people's DNA should be removed from the NDNAD, a decision that could see about 850,000 people's details deleted.

The information commissioner should also be able to carry out unannounced spot checks on private sector organisations to check they are complying with the data protection act, the report recommended.

"The government has been clear that where surveillance or data collection will impact on privacy, they should only be used where it is necessary and proportionate", a spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said. "This provides law enforcement agencies with the tools to protect the public, as well as ensuring Government has the ability to provide effective public services, while ensuring there are effective safeguards and a solid legal framework that protects civil liberties."

Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, said: "This report reflects a sea change in public opinion. The language is robust and unequivocal about the need to address surveillance as a matter of urgency. Hopefully, this will pave the way to overturn the parts of the Coroners and Justice Bill that will give government ministers the ability to demand data sharing between organisations."

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