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Embargo: 00:01 Friday 6 February 2009

Contact: Owen Williams 020 7219 8659

EVER INCREASING USE OF SURVEILLANCE AND DATA COLLECTION RISKS UNDERMINING FUNDAMENTAL FREEDOMS - LORDS CONSTITUTION COMMITTEE

The rise in surveillance and data collection by the state and private sector risks undermining the fundamental relationship between the state and citizens, which is the cornerstone of democracy and good governance. This assessment comes from the House of Lords Constitution Committee in their report Surveillance: Citizens and the State, which is published today.

The Committee highlight the 'pervasive and routine' electronic surveillance and collection and processing of personal information that alters the relationship between the state and individuals, undermining the public's right to privacy. The report points out that privacy is an 'essential pre-requisite to the exercise of individual freedom' and that executive and legislative restraint in the use of surveillance and data collection should be taken into account at all times by the executive, government agencies and other public bodies.

The Committee point as an example of the growing trend in surveillance of citizens to the growth in CCTV, with the UK now thought to lead the world in the use of CCTV with an estimated 4 million cameras in operation. They also highlight the National DNA Database (NDNAD), which is the largest in proportionate terms in the world with 7.39% of the population in the NDNAD compared with just 0.5% of the US population on the FBI's 'CODIS' database. The report argues that the NDNAD potentially infringes civil liberties and could in the future be used for malign purposes. The Committee expect the Government to act quickly to comply with the recent European Court of Human Rights decision that the DNA profiles of people arrested but subsequently not convicted of an offence should be removed from the NDNAD.

The Committee make 44 recommendations to protect individuals from invasions of their privacy related to surveillance and data collection. They include:

  • The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) should be amended to include a system of judicial oversight for surveillance carried out by public authorities. Compensation should be paid to those who are found to have been subject to unlawful surveillance under RIPA powers.
  • The Government should reconsider whether local authorities are the appropriate bodies to exercise RIPA powers, and if they are to continue to possess those powers the Government should define the circumstances in which their use is appropriate.
  • The Data Protection Act 1998 should be amended so as to make it mandatory for Government departments to produce an independent and publicly available Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) prior to the adoption of any new data collection or processing scheme. There should be a role for the Information Commissioner in scrutinising and approving PIAs.
  • The Government should introduce a Bill to replace the existing regulatory framework governing the NDNAD. This would provide an opportunity to reassess the length of time DNA profiles are retained and the regulatory oversight of the NDNAD. The DNA of people who voluntarily provide it to assist an investigation should be removed from the NDNAD at the close of that inquiry as a matter of law.
  • The Government should introduce a statutory regime for the use of CCTV by both the public and private sectors and introduce codes of practice which are legally binding on all CCTV schemes.
  • A Parliamentary Joint Committee on surveillance and data powers of the state should be established. Any proposed legislation which would expand surveillance or data processing powers should be referred to this Committee for scrutiny.
  • The Information Commissioner should be given the same powers to carry out inspections of private sector organisations as for the public sector. Companies who refuse access to the Information Commissioner may well be those with something to hide.

The Committee also point out that the public are often unaware of the vast amount of information about them that is kept and exchanged between organisations. The report recommends that Government and local authorities should take steps to help citizens understand the privacy issues for themselves and society that may result from the use of surveillance and data processing. These steps should include working with the Information Commissioner's Office to raise public understanding of the issues.

Commenting on the publication of the report, Lord Goodlad, Chairman of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, said:

"The huge rise in surveillance and data collection by the state and other organisations risks undermining the long standing traditions of privacy and individual freedom which are vital for democracy. If the public are to trust that information about them is not being improperly used there should be much more openness about what data is collected, by whom and how it is used.

"The UK now has more CCTV cameras and a bigger National DNA Database than any other country. There can be no justification for this gradual but incessant creep towards every detail about us being recorded and pored over by the state.

"The Committee were concerned about local authorities' inappropriate use of RIPA powers to spy on the public over issues such as littering and to check residential status over school applications, a clear misuse of power. The Government should consider whether local authorities should have recourse to RIPA powers. If they are to continue to have access to those powers there should be clear guidance on when and how they can be used.

"The Information Commissioner should now be given the powers which he needs both to investigate private sector organisations' use of personal data in the same way that he can for the public sector, and to have more involvement in scrutinising moves by the public sector to expand its surveillance activities."

Notes to Editors

  1. The report Surveillance: Citizens and the State, is available from The Stationery Office, House of Lords Constitution Committee, 2nd Report of 2008/09, HL Paper 18.
  2. The report will be online shortly after publication at: http://www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/lords_constitution_committee.cfm

For copies of the report or for further information, please contact Owen Williams, Head of Press and Media, House of Lords, on 020 7219 8659.