by Alexi Mostrous and Richard Ford
Laws that allow officials to monitor the behaviour of millions of Britons risk “hardwiring surveillance” into the British way of life, the country's privacy watchdog has warned.
Richard Thomas told The Times that “creeping surveillance” in the public and private sectors had gone “too far, too fast” and risked undermining democracy.
The Information Commissioner warned that proposals to allow widespread data sharing between Whitehall and the private sector were too far-reaching and that plans to create a giant database of every telephone call, e-mail and text message risked turning everyone into a suspect. “In the last 10 or 15 years a great deal of surveillance in public and private places has been extended without sufficient thought to the risks and consequences,” said Mr Thomas, 59. “Our society is based on liberty and democracy. I do not want to see excessive surveillance hardwired into British society.”
He criticised proposals going through Parliament to allow mass data sharing between government departments and the private sector. Campaigners have claimed that Section 152 of the Coroners and Justice Bill would enable the transfer of health and tax records to private companies such as insurance firms and medical researchers.
Last year Mr Thomas — who became head of the independent body charged with safeguarding privacy and freedom of information in 2002 — recommended to ministers that data sharing be allowed only in carefully defined circumstances such as law enforcement, improving public services and for research. They ignored his advice. The Bill “needs to be narrowed”, Mr Thomas said. He called on Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, to write into it that “anything to justify a data-sharing order has to come explicitly under one of those headings”.
Whitehall sources told The Times yesterday that Mr Straw would amend the Bill in the next few weeks to meet Mr Thomas's criticisms. Previously Mr Straw's department had maintained that there were sufficient safeguards, including a requirement for parliamentary approval for each data transfer.
The Bill also gives the Information Commissioner the power to investigate public bodies without their consent where there has been a suspected breach of data protection law. Mr Thomas complained that the powers did not extend to private companies.
Other government plans also risked undermining people's right to privacy, Mr Thomas said. Of the Home Secretary's proposal to build a database to store information currently held by internet service providers and telephone companies, Mr Thomas said: “A government-run database of the communications of all citizens, every phone call, every e-mail, every text, every internet use; a database of all those activities held by the Government would be a step too far for the British way of life.”
He dismissed Jacqui Smith's assurances that officials would have access only to data on who had contacted whom, rather than the content of the communication. “That A has telephoned B on a particular date from a particular location is actually quite intrusive,” he said. “If an MP logged on to a site selling Viagra, that tells you quite a lot. If a 16-year-old girl goes on to a website about abortion that tells you an awful lot about her too. I don't think there's a black-and-white distinction between traffic data and content.”
Mr Thomas made clear that he did not object to the monitoring of those suspected of involvement in terrorism and serious crime. “But I think that's a very different situation from monitoring the communications of the entire population,” he said. “We've got to have a much clearer distinction between those who are suspects and everybody else and I think we're at risk of making everybody a suspect if we go too far down this road.”
Security services have insisted that modernising the capacity to store and search telephone and internet information is crucial if Britain's ability to combat terrorists and serious organised crime is to be maintained.
Mr Thomas said that forcing government officials to make specific requests every time they needed information — as they currently have to do - provided a crucial safeguard. “If you have a security service or a policeman making an application [to an internet service provider for records], at least each of those applications has to go through a process and is scrutinised by the ISP. That's very different from it all being done behind the closed doors of a governmental agency.”
His concern about the erosion of the right to privacy extends to social networking sites. People did not realise that information put on sites such as Facebook and MySpace could come “back to haunt them”, he said.
Another area of concern for Mr Thomas is the use of surveillance cameras: he criticised the police for pressing to have closed-circuit television cameras installed in pubs. “We've come out against the requirement for pub licensees to fit CCTV as a condition of their licence,” he said. “This is hardwiring surveillance into British pubs. It is unacceptable.”
He also expressed concern that even some schools were now installing cameras in the classroom. He said that it might be acceptable in the case of a particularly unruly class, “but to roll out cameras in all classrooms is unacceptable”.
The Information Commissioner added his voice to criticism of ContactPoint, a computer database containing details on every child in the country.
“I can see the benefits of a national database of children at risk ... I'm less convinced that you need to have a database of every child in the country. Is it not better to have fuller details of children known to be at risk and make sure that information is used properly?”
Other key government surveillance measures had been “pushed through” without proper scrutiny or parliamentary debate. Of a database of DNA gathered from crime suspects, he said: “Clearly, the DNA database was set up with insufficient public debate. Part of the problem was that such debate took place on the assumption that it would be expensive to run DNA tests. The costs have absolutely fallen and it has become a matter of routine. We have to re-examine the issue in the light of current technology.”
He also lamented the lack of debate over the creation of a North London database that records details of car numberplates for up to five years. Mr Thomas questioned whether the Government had the legal authority for this and asked whether the public recognised that millions of their daily journeys were now being monitored. “We have to scrutinise every proposal very closely indeed to ensure that none involves a step too far.”