Britain ‘a surveillance society’

Britain is becoming a “surveillance society” where people’s every moves are monitored, the information commission warned today.

Richard Thomas said two years ago that the country was in danger of “sleepwalking” into a surveillance society, but today he warned such a society already existed.

There are currently 4.2 million CCTV cameras in Britain, one for about every 14 people. Combined with the use of electronic travel cards and monitoring of telephone calls and emails, he said most people do not realise how much they are being watched.

“I fear that we are in fact waking up to a surveillance society that is already all around us,” Mr Thomas said.

To mark today’s international data protection and privacy conference in London, the commissioner has published a new report looking at how much people are monitored now and predicting the state of surveillance in 2016.

It says the existing use of GPS satellite systems as a tool to avoid traffic build-ups will be extended to automatically debit the motorist’s bank account for the cost of a road or mileage toll, and to allow police to monitor the speed of all cars.

Current health checks on new employees could be extended to biometric and psychometric tests and jobs refused to those who do not take part, it suggests. Pensions packages could be drawn up depending on a person’s life expectancy and future health.

Ultimately, the report says facial recognition systems using tiny cameras embedded in lampposts and in walls will monitor people’s every movement, backed up by surveillance from unmanned flying vehicles in the sky.

“[Surveillance] may be necessary or desirable – for example to fight terrorism and serious crime, to improve entitlement and access to public and private services, and to improve healthcare,” Mr Thomas said.

“But unseen, uncontrolled or excessive surveillance can foster a climate of suspicion and undermine trust.”

He warned the implications of data collected and shared were often serious, for example when people’s identity was mistaken or security breached. He said he was keen to “start about the debate about where the lines should be drawn”.

The commissioner’s comments came after the Department of Health (DoH) was yesterday forced to defend its new IT scheme to put all patient records on an electronic database, accessible by NHS staff around the country.

Concerns were expressed about the possibility of police and security services having access to this information, but a DoH spokesman insisted the legal protection of such data would not change. He also said staff would need a chip and pin card to access records.