Westminster Hall – A Surveillance Society?

Posted on June 14th, 2011 in Parliamentary News

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I am most grateful to the Liaison Committee and the House for allowing us to debate the Home Affairs Committee’s fifth report, which asked whether Britain is becoming a surveillance society. The purpose of the debate is to discuss the issues raised in the inquiry and to consider developments since the report’s publication. I am delighted to see so many Members present, including the Minister and the hon. Members for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) and for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake). The latter is a fellow member of the Select Committee.

The increasing potential, over the past decade, for the surveillance of citizens in public spaces and of private communications provided the Committee with the impetus to investigate the issue further. Much of that impetus came from the public sector. Is the state the kindly uncle Vernon or the sinister Big Brother? That is the fundamental question confronting the public every day. The approximately 4.2 million cameras in the United Kingdom capture a person, on average, 300 times a day. Over the past decade, the Home Office has invested £500 million in CCTV equipment, and, in the 1990s, it spent 78 per cent. of its crime prevention budget on installing CCTV equipment.

The boundary between what constitutes a legitimate tool in the fight against crime and an unacceptable intrusion into an individual’s private life is disputed and poses difficult questions. The Committee set out to examine the evidence, with a view to proposing ground rules for the Government and their agencies. We began by taking evidence from the Information Commissioner, and went on to hear from witnesses on matters such as the collection and use of personal information by private sector organisations, the technological developments that might have affected, or that are likely to affect, the storage and sharing of personal information, and the impact of various kinds of surveillance on privacy and individual liberty. We also took evidence on Government databases and information sharing, surveillance and the fight against crime. We completed our inquiry by hearing from the Home Office.

Our inquiry took about one year, during which—this was not our fault—a number of data loss incidents took place that further highlighted our concern about the potential damage caused by the loss of such personal data. In November 2007, child benefit data, including addresses and bank details, on 25 million individuals and 7.25 million families were lost. On 3 February 2008,
newspaper allegations claimed that, on two occasions in 2005 and 2006, at Her Majesty’s Prison Woodhill, conversations between my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) and one of his constituents, Mr. Babar Ahmad, who was detained in prison on an extradition warrant, had been the subject of covert recording. There are many other examples, but I shall not embarrass the Government or the Minister by going through every data loss since the inquiry began, although I am sure that the hon. Member for Hornchurch will read out the list. However, I do not hold the Minister or the Home Office responsible for the losses. I raised those incidents simply because we are concerned that, although there might be good reasons for collecting data, loss could occur without proper security and scrutiny.

Data collection clearly benefits the fight against crime, including fraud, but we concluded that it also involves significant risks. Mistakes in, or misuses of, databases can cause substantial practical harm to individuals. For example, if an individual’s personal details are lost, they could be used for negative purposes, as demonstrated by the loss of the data on child benefit recipients. I am also concerned about other databases. However, to be fair to the Minister, the Government have reviewed the security of databases, and will do so again as they pursue the mother of all databases—that to hold the information contained on identity cards.

The Committee concluded that Britain is not a surveillance society—yet—but warned the Government that great care must be taken to avoid it becoming one. We found that the Government must be extremely vigilant in protecting individuals’ information and warned that unless trust in the Government’s intentions in relation to data collection, retention and sharing is carefully preserved, there is a danger that the “surveillance society” tag will be rightly placed upon us.

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