Socially divisive surveillance society is here, says privacy chief

Constant surveillance by companies and government is in danger of creating a socially divided society, the Information Commissioner has warned. A reliance on databases will carve society up according to social and economic status, according to his report.

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

Thomas commissioned a report which outlined the present and immediate future of surveillance in the UK. It found that companies already discriminate between customers according to social profiling. With government keen to share data with the private sector, that process is likely to accelerate, it found.

"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.

"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."

The social profiling that is performed with the collected data could have severely adverse affects on individuals, the report warned. It described a near future where wealthy, educated people would be mobile, would be fast tracked at airports and in electronic sales processes. Those same methods would be used to slow down the physical, social and economic movements of poorer people, it said.

"If you are talking about building up profiles of people you are going to find there's an element of social sorting going on," said Bamford. "You actually see that some people become favoured and others treated with suspicion."

"You could be the best behaved child in the class but if the profile that's generated on you based on your relatives show you as being a risk of being disruptive or being one of the 20% of people who commit 80% of the crime in later life you're going to be treated in a particular way whoever comes into contact with you, however you are. There are worries there for the future for social stigmatisation, social exclusion, a society of haves and have nots," he said.

One fear expressed in the report is of 'mission creep', where information projects created for specific reasons are expanded to gather more and more data and share it more and more widely for reasons other than those originally stated.

One of the scientists behind the UK's DNA database said that he believed that that database had suffered 'mission creep' and has become far too large. Designed to hold DNA data on convicted criminals, it now holds information on many people who come into contact with the police, whether guilty or innocent.

"Now hundreds of thousands of entirely innocent people are populating that database," Professor Alec Jeffreys told the BBC this week. Civil rights campaigners believe that a third of black males in England and Wales are on the database. Jeffreys said that the socio-economic and ethnic imbalance in the database is "discriminatory".