Posted: February 12th, 2009 by Militant Libertarian
Electronic surveillance and collection of personal data are “pervasive” in British society and threaten to undermine democracy, peers have warned.
CCTV cameras and the DNA database were two examples of threats to privacy, the Lords constitution committee said.
It called for compensation for people subject to illegal surveillance.
The government said CCTV and DNA were “essential” to fight crime but campaign group Liberty said abuses of power mean “even the innocent have a lot to fear”.
Civil liberties campaigners have warned about the risks of a “surveillance society” in which the state acquires ever-greater powers to track people’s movements and retain personal data.
Controversial government plans for a database to store details of people’s phone calls and e-mails were put on hold late last year after they were branded “Orwellian”.
Ministers are consulting on the plan, which would involve the details but not the content of calls and internet traffic being logged, saying it is essential to fighting terrorism.
The Department for Communities and Local Government said it had written to local councils to ask them to ensure surveillance powers were used “proportionately” and not for tackling minor offences such as dog fouling.
A spokesman said: “It is right and important that councils have these powers of surveillance – they are an effective means of tackling real problems that can blight communities, such as rogue traders, fly tippers and loan sharks.
“But the public must have confidence in who has these powers and that they are used in a proportionate and proper way which is why we are working closely with the home office and local government to develop training and guidance.”
In its report, the Lords constitution committee said growth in surveillance by both the state and the private sector risked threatening people’s right to privacy, which it said was “an essential pre-requisite to the exercise of individual freedom”.
People were often unaware of the scale of personal information held and exchanged by public bodies, it said.
“There can be no justification for this gradual but incessant creep towards every detail about us being recorded and pored over by the state,” committee chairman and Tory peer Lord Goodlad said.
‘Misuse of powers’
Among areas of most concern were the growth of CCTV cameras, of which there are now an estimated four million in the UK.
The UK is said by privacy campaigners to have the most cameras per head of population in the world, but no definitive figures are available.
According to a 2004 European Commission report, Britain has the highest density of CCTV cameras in Europe. It found 40,000 cameras monitored public areas in 500 British towns and cities, compared to fewer than 100 cameras in 15 German cities and no open street CCTV at all in Denmark.
In its report, the Lords committee said the use of cameras should be regulated on a statutory basis in the UK, with a legally binding code of practice governing their use.
There was evidence of abuse of surveillance powers by some councils, with cameras wrongly being “used to spy on the public over issues such as littering”.
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