Tuesday, August 17, 2004

U.K. Could 'Sleepwalk' Into a Surveillance Society


Watchdog's Big Brother UK warning
BBC August 16 2004

The UK could "sleepwalk into a surveillance society" as a result of IDcards and other plans, the information commissioner Richard Thomas haswarned.He is particularly concerned about how much information will be collectedand widely shared under the ID card plans.Mr Thomas is also concerned about plans for a population register and adatabase of every child.He used General Franco's Spain as an example of what can happen when astate knows too much about its citizens.Mr Thomas says, although he is not for or against an ID card schemeitself, he is concerned about the government's failure to spell out theirexact purpose.He told The Times newspaper: "My anxiety is that we don't sleepwalk into asurveillance society where much more information is collected aboutpeople, accessible to far more people shared across many more boundaries,than British society would feel comfortable with."The government has changed its line over the last two or three years asto what the card is intended for."You have to have clarity. Is it for the fight against terrorism? Is it topromote immigration control? Is it to provide access to public benefitsand services?"A Home Office spokesman said: "The Government remains committed to itsplans for a national identity card scheme which, among other things, willprotect people in the fight against identity fraud and organised crime."Mr Thomas said he did not want to sound "paranoid" but pointed to GeneralFranco's Spain and Communist Eastern Europe as examples of what can happenwhen a government gets too powerful and has too much information on itscitizens.ConsultationMr Thomas, who is information commissioner for England and Wales, alsoraised concerns about to the Citizen's Information Project, planned by theOffice for National Statistics (ONS), which would create a populationdatabase for use by public services.An ONS spokeswoman said a consultation on the plans was currently beingheld and that nothing was set in stone."The population register would simply act as an index to existing recordsheld in different databases."These records could only be linked when specifically authorised bylegislation," a consultation paper on the plans says.Mr Thomas also expressed concerns about a database of all children frombirth to adulthood proposed in the Children Bill.'Function creep'The proposal followed the inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie whichcriticised the failure to share information about the youngster.Under the scheme, every child would have a unique number which wouldenable the different organisations that come into contact with children,such as social services, police and educational bodies to shareinformation.Mr Thomas told the Times: "There are reasons why we need to promote betterinformation sharing where children are at risk, but whether the answer isto create a database of every child in the country should be questioned."A Downing Street spokeswoman told reporters Mr Thomas was making animportant contribution to the government's consultations over the ID cardsplans.She stressed there would be guarantees to prevent "function creep" soinformation was not handed around government in an uncontrolled way.