Parliament to probe Government surveillance of citizens

The UK Parliament has launched an enquiry into the surveillance conducted on citizens by the Government. It will investigate the growing number and scope of government databases holding increasing amounts of information on citizens.

The Home Affairs Committee will conduct the inquiry, called 'A Surveillance Society?', so that it can produce rules for Government to follow when building up increasing amounts of sensitive and private information on the general public.

"The inquiry will consider the growth of numerous public and private databases and forms of surveillance," said a Committee statement. "They either derive directly from the work of the Home Office and its related public functions or are controversial because whilst they offer the potential to play a part in the fight against crime their use may impinge on individual liberty."

"The inquiry will focus on Home Office responsibilities such as identity cards, the National DNA Database and CCTV, but where relevant will look also at other departments’ responsibilities in this area, for instance the implications of databases being developed by the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills for use in the fight against crime," it said.

Information Commissioner Richard Thomas has warned that UK citizens are becoming increasingly monitored, and that while the Government is responsible for gathering more information about people, citizens themselves are not protecting their rights vigorously enough.

"Two years ago I warned that we were in danger of sleepwalking into a surveillance society," Thomas said in November. "Today I fear that we are in fact waking up to a surveillance society that is already all around us."

The Commissioner's office warned late last year that there was increasing pressure in government circles to increase surveillance. "It's a big business, the business of data aggregation in the private sector, bringing together information on people's habits and activities to sell commercially," Assistant Information Commissioner Jonathan Bamford told OUT-LAW Radio, the weekly technology law podcast, in November.

"With the public sector we see an increase in pressure for information sharing, the Government has its transformational government agenda, the idea that if only public authorities shared more information, they'd do better things for the public. I think we have to be clear on what the boundaries are in terms of data protection rules and public acceptability," said Bamford.

The inquiry will, said the Committee, use the Commissioner's work as a starting place. "The Committee’s aim is not to carry out a comprehensive detailed review of the subject of the kind recently carried out by the Surveillance Studies Network on behalf of the Information Commissioner, but to build on the Information Commission’s work in exploring the large strategic issues of concern to the general public, with a view to proposing ground rules for Government and its agencies," it said.