Thursday, November 02, 2006

Britain starts discussing privacy and surveillance

The UK is one of the countries with the greatest amount of surveillance taking place and consequently faces threats to its citizens' privacy. This is the gist of a report that the Office of the Information Commissioner has published today, on the occasion of hosting the 28th International Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners’ Conference in London.

The 102 page "Report on the Surveillance Society" has been written with the help of leading academics in the field, and it is supplemented by expert reports focusing in detail on specific areas such as Citizenship and Identity, Consumption and Profiling, Crime and Justice, Public Services, and Workplace Surveillance. Both reports can be downloaded from the Information Commissioner's website.

The report has created quite a bit of public attention, with the BBC reporting at length on it and the underlying topics and developments (see here), and the Daily Telegraph devoting more than two whole pages to it under the headline "Britain: the most spied nation in the world". The paper's leader links the developments to government action and thus politicises it:
"History will record that the most baleful legacy of New Labour is […] the way in which it has destroyed our privacy. We are the most spied-upon society in Europe, with more CCTV cameras than the rest of the EU combined. In the international rankings calculated by the human rights organisation Privacy International we are near the bottom of the table, marginally above Russia and China but below the Philippines and Thailand."
The article ends by calling upon Conservative Party leader David Cameron to "lead a full-throated and sustained attack on New Labour's surveillance society".

The report and its debate comes only a day after the Nuffield Council on Bioethics launched a public consultation exercise to draw the British public's attention to the fact that the National DNA Database currently holds more than 3.5 mio samples, and that 40000 citizens are added each month to the database. This makes the NDNAD by far the largest DNA database in the world. Since DNA contains a lot of information about each individual (which also means that comparing it to a fingerprint, while often done for convenience, is factually wrong), serious ethical, social and political questions are being raised by this. The consultation paper can be found online here, and comments are invited until 30 January 2007.

On the same day, the Guardian's headline read "Warning over privacy of 50m patient files", discussing the giant £12 bn NHS IT project that will make all patient health information centrally available — with access for law enforcement and security services, and without the right for the individual to withhold that information.

Might it be that we are presently witnessing the start of a comprehensive debate about the politics of privacy in the United Kingdom?

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