"Sleepwalking into a surveillance society?" - Information Commissioner

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In an interview with the Times newspaper the UK Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, warns that his concern is that: "we don't sleepwalk into a surveillance society". The Times: by Richard Ford, Home Correspondent: Full story (link)

Mr Thomas is concerned about three projects which when viewed together could lead to a situation reminiscent of the former communist regimes in eastern Europe and Franco's Spain. The project he refers to are: the proposed Identity Card scheme which will have personal details and the fingerprints of everyone in the country, the population database - the Citizen’s Information Project - being set up by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) and proposals in the Childrens' Bill - currently before parliament - which would create a database on all children from birth to age 18 (and details of their parents).

He told the paper that:

My anxiety is that we don’t sleepwalk into a surveillance society where much more information is collected about people, accessible to far more people shared across many more boundaries than British society would feel comfortable with...”

"Some of my counterparts in Eastern Europe, in Spain, have experienced in the last century what can happen when government gets too powerful and has too much information on citizens. When everyone knows everything about everybody else and the Government has got massive files, whether manual or computerised...”

“I don’t think people have woken up to what lies behind this. It enables the Government of the day to build up quite a comprehensive picture about many of your activities. My job is to make sure no more information is collected than necessary for any particular purpose.” Although he does not oppose the idea of identity cards, insisting that he cannot be “for or against”, he is critical of the Government’s failure to spell out in a draft Bill the cards’ exact purpose. He says: “The Government has changed its line over the last two or three years as to what the card is intended for. You have to have clarity. Is it for the fight against terrorism? Is it to promote immigration control? Is it to provide access to public benefit and services? Various other reasons have been put forward... I don’t think that is acceptable.”

In an editorial the Times says:

"the cumulative effect, the Information Commissioner implies, will be the accumulation of a large and intrusive amount of material that, if precedent is any guide, will ultimately be exploited by more departments within Whitehall that is promised at the outset. This is a serious charge from a credible person and ministers should be obliged to respond to it".


1.. ID cards: UK: Home Affairs Committee report on: Identity Cards (full-text - pdf). See also Submission to the Committee from the Information Commissioner which is more critical than the report: Information Commissioner (pdf) Background:

a. Full-text of consultation paper and draft ID Cards Bill (pdf)
b. Briefing sent to Labour MPs (pdf)
c. Prime Minister there is "no longer a civil liberties" objection to ID cards
d. "The Government intends to introduce, a national compulsory ID cards scheme using an individual biometric identifier linked to a new national database" - to fight "terrorism" and give "the freedom to do easily things like travel to Florida on holiday" - David Blunkett, Home Secretary: Statewatch article

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