Last updated: July 15, 2008 11:09 pm

Easier access to data ‘a step too far’

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Plans to give government easier access to confidential personal telephone and internet information could feed vast official databases and be “a step too far for the British way of life”, the privacy watchdog warned on Tuesday.

Presenting his annual report, Richard Thomas, information commissioner, said people’s data, ranging from DNA records to car number plates were being piled up without proper debate or justification.

Mr Thomas’s warning – his latest salvo against the so-called surveillance society – comes amid concerns about the potential for officials to use proposed new powers to gather information on the electronic communications of every member of the public.

Mr Thomas told the Financial Times a mega-database along these lines would almost turn “the entire population into potential suspects” and would be inimical to traditional British liberties. He said: “If there is a scheme along these lines, there should be maximum transparency and full public debate before it gets near parliament.”

The watchdog said he had become worried after seeing both media reports of a planned database and government proposals for a new communications data bill aimed at “modifying procedures for acquiring communications data”.

He said that could potentially lead to including “every telephone call, every e-mail, every internet search, every online transaction”. That would raise a wide range of potential concerns, principally about what information would be gathered, who would have access to it and how it could be kept secure.

“This goes wider than data protection, a lot wider,” said Mr Thomas. “It’s concerned with privacy, the relationship between state and citizen, and how far we want to go in the fight against terrorism and serious crime.”

The government has not denied media reports that surfaced in May alleging it planned to gather and keep for at least 12 months details of every phone call, e-mail and time spent on the internet by the public. The police and security services would be able to use the database with a judge’s permission.

Companies already keep data in their own stores for 12 months to comply with tougher laws that the authorities say are intended to help fight crime.

Mr Thomas – who also has responsibility for data security – warned that companies in breach of data protection rules should expect tough fines under new powers granted to him in May. He said he expected to impose penalties similar to those exacted by the Financial Services Authority, the main City regulator, over information security breaches.

The FSA has in the past year stepped up its enforcement action on information security, fining Nationwide, the building society, £980,000 and Norwich Union, the insurer, £1.26m over data security lapses.

Mr Thomas said more than 30 companies had reported breaches to him after Revenue and Customs lost personal data relating to 25m families in November last year.

Surveillance creep in everyday life

People face ever-increasing surveillance by public authorities that are using technological advances and wider legal powers to gather and store private information.

Critics of the trend say the authorities are building up troves of private details without debating in public whether what they are doing is necessary.

One area of concern is the DNA gathered by police from suspects and then held on a database for matching against evidence from future crimes. The database, which covered almost 3.5m individuals by the end of 2005, including 40 per cent of black males.

Another contentious mega-database records details of the network of traffic cameras that the Information Commissioner’s Office says is able to read 50m number plates a day.

Privacy campaigners have also attacked the use of tough surveillance powers by hundreds of local councils and other authorities to monitor petty street crime, boat-owners accused of illegal fishing and even parents suspected of lying about their addresses to get their children into better schools.

Gordon Brown, prime minister, has agreed to give the privacy watchdog and MPs greater powers of scrutiny over the use of surveillance, accepting a key recommendation of the Commons home affairs committee.

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