Watchdog calls for greater protection against surveillance

New safeguards are needed to avert a surveillance society and protect people's privacy, the Information Commissioner has warned.

Speaking at a Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry in London today, Richard Thomas said his Office (ICO) needs greater authority, including privacy impact assessments and inspection powers, to ensure public confidence in initiatives and technologies that could otherwise “accelerate the growth of a surveillance society”.

“People now understand that data protection is an essential barrier to excessive surveillance,” said Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas. “The risks that arise from excessive surveillance affect both individuals and society as a whole. As well as risks such as identity mistakes and security breaches there can be unnecessary intrusion into people’s lives and loss of personal autonomy and create a climate of fear and suspicion.”

In his submission to the inquiry, Thomas calls for the introduction of privacy impact assessments that will ensure organisations set out how they will minimise the threat to privacy and address all the risks of new surveillance before implementation. The Information Commissioner also recommends that he is consulted before any significant new developments.

At present, the privacy watchdog must get permission before inspecting organisations over Data Protection Act issues. “It is essential that before new surveillance technologies are introduced full consideration is given to the impact on individuals and that safeguards are in place to minimise intrusion,” he added.

In November, the Information Commissioner released a report that said the UK had “sleepwalked into a surveillance society” and the excessive use of monitoring techniques had caused a loss of anonymity and privacy. The study warned that the country had become a surveillance society that uses the advances in technology to increasingly monitor people’s day-to-day activities and intrude into their private lives.

He said today: “Many information gathering activities are essential and beneficial to modern life. But balance is needed and there must be limits. Positive action is required to ensure the potential risks do not manifest themselves. Otherwise the trust and confidence which individuals must have in all organisations that hold information about them will be placed in jeopardy.”

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