Information Commissioner demands new powers

Information Commissioner Richard Thomas will demand new powers from Parliament today. Thomas will tell a Parliamentary committee that an increase in his authority is essential to stop the UK becoming a surveillance society.

"Last year I warned about the dangers of waking up to a surveillance society," said Thomas. "While I do not believe that we are living in the type of society associated with totalitarian regimes it is important that there is a vigorous debate around the issue of surveillance – about where lines should be drawn and the restrictions and safeguards which are needed."

Parliament's Home Affairs Select Committee will conduct a hearing this morning into whether or not the UK is becoming a surveillance society and will hear evidence from Thomas and his two deputies David Smith and Jonathan Bamford.

Thomas will call for his office to be given the power to force organisations to submit to inspections and audits from his office, the ICO. The ICO can inspect an organisation to check its compliance with the Data Protection Act, but only with the permission of that organisation.

"People now understand that data protection is an essential barrier to excessive surveillance," said Thomas. "But it is wrong that my office cannot find out what is happening in practice without the consent of each organisation."

He also wants to be able to insist on privacy impact assessments of any new surveillance. In these, an organisation will have to explain how it will minimise threats to privacy and address all the risks of surveillance activity before carrying it out. Thomas also wants to be consulted as a matter of course before new developments, his office said.

"The risks that arise from excessive surveillance affect both individuals and society as a whole," said Thomas. "As well as risks such as identity mistakes and security breaches there can be unnecessary intrusion into people’s lives and loss of personal autonomy."

"There is also a concern that too much surveillance will create a climate of fear and suspicion. It is essential that before new surveillance technologies are introduced full consideration is given to the impact on individuals and that safeguards are in place to minimise intrusion," he said.