Select Committee on Home Affairs Fifth Report

1  Introduction

Outline of the Committee's inquiry

1.  In March 2007 the Home Affairs Committee launched a wide-ranging inquiry into the growth of public and private databases and those forms of surveillance directly relevant to the work of the Home Office. We decided to consider the following key issues:

Access by public agencies to private databases

Data-sharing between government departments and agencies

Existing safeguards for data use and whether they are strong enough

The monitoring of abuses

Potential abuse of private databases by criminals

The case for introducing privacy impact assessments

Privacy-enhancing technologies


2.  The growth of the so-called "surveillance society" has already been subject to a detailed and wide-ranging inquiry by the Surveillance Studies Network, carried out at the request of the Information Commissioner. Our aim was not to duplicate that work but rather to build on it in exploring the large strategic issues of concern to the general public.

3.  The boundary between what is a legitimate tool in the fight against crime, and what constitutes an unacceptable intrusion into an individual's privacy is a fraught and disputed one. We set out to examine the evidence with a view to proposing ground rules for Government and its agencies.

4.  We received over 60 memoranda and took oral evidence on six occasions. We began by taking evidence from the Information Commissioner and went on to hear from witnesses on matters such as the collection and use of personal information by private sector organisations, the technological and social developments which have affected—or which are likely to affect—how personal information is stored and shared, and the impact of various kinds of surveillance on privacy and individual liberty. We took further evidence on government databases and information-sharing, and on surveillance and the fight against crime; and we completed our inquiry by hearing from the Home Office. A list of those who gave oral evidence is annexed.

5.  We visited the USA in connection with our inquiry, holding meetings with—amongst others—the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, Microsoft, the American Civil Liberties Union and Senator Joe Lieberman in Washington DC, Governor Martin O'Malley and State staff in Annapolis, Maryland and Mayor Sheila Dixon and City staff in Baltimore, Maryland. We are grateful to all of those who made time to meet us and extend our thanks to HM Ambassador Sir Nigel Sheinwald KCMG, Alan Charlton CMG, CVO, then Deputy Head of Mission, and all of those Foreign and Commonwealth Office and locally-engaged Embassy staff who assisted us.

6.  During our inquiry we also held an informal meeting with a high level expert committee commissioned by the Government of the Netherlands to examine the way in which intelligence and police organisations collect data from external databases and share it with their partners.

7.  We record our thanks to our Specialist Adviser, Professor Nigel Gilbert of the University of Surrey and the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Background to the Committee's inquiry

8.  Surveillance plays a part in the life of the individual and in society as a whole that can often go unnoticed. It can also, however, be the source of deeply-felt unease and concern. A perception of the growth of surveillance—in particular the collection, storage and use of personal information—as an increasingly important part of the Government's policy in tackling crime, managing borders and delivering public services, lay behind our decision to undertake this inquiry. We examined Home Office responsibilities—such as identity cards, the National DNA Database and CCTV—in this context.

Benefits and risks of surveillance

9.  We have examined the benefits of surveillance in terms of public safety and public services, and the risks in terms of the consequences of mistakes, mis-identification, and loss of sensitive information. We found that the way in which the balance between benefit and risk is negotiated has potentially profound implications. Privacy plays an important role in the social contract between citizen and state: to enjoy a private life is to act on the assumption that the state trusts the citizen to behave in a law-abiding and responsible way. Engaging in more surveillance undermines this assumption and erodes trust between citizen and state. In turn such an erosion of trust—with the citizen living under the assumption that he or she is not trusted by the state to behave within the law—may lead to a change in the reaction of the citizen and in his or her behaviour in interactions with other citizens and the Government.

10.  This is not to say that the Government should not seek to prevent crime or to enforce the law but to draw attention to the danger of giving the impression through intensifying surveillance—even if it is a false impression—that everyone is a suspect. More than simply a matter of the Home Office and Government in general setting the right technical or bureaucratic standards, the collection and storage of large amounts of personal information which may be used to build up a picture of an individual's activities can ultimately affect the nature of the relationship between the individual and the Government and in turn the nature of the society in which we live.

HMRC data loss and recording of conversations at HMP Woodhill

11.  Any sense that ours was a purely academic inquiry was dispelled by great public concern caused by the loss of child benefit records by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) in October 2007. The legitimacy of the state's control of data has also been called into question in the reporting of allegations that conversations between Sadiq Khan MP and a constituent of his who had been detained in HMP Woodhill, had been subject to covert recording in May 2005 and June 2006. The Government is itself now engaged in several reviews of the security of personal data and systems for sharing it, and Rt Hon Sir Christopher Rose, Chief Surveillance Commissioner, has carried out an inquiry into the circumstances relating to the HMP Woodhill case.

Our Report

12.  We have begun by setting out a series of steps which the Home Office in particular and the Government more generally should take to curb unnecessary surveillance, protect the public against the loss of personal data, and maintain the trust of those individuals whose sense of privacy and individual liberty underpins the relationship between citizen and state in our society.

13.  In the next section we outline the broad view we have taken in relation to a working definition of surveillance. We go on to examine the growth in surveillance and the potential for surveillance and to explore some of the factors which have contributed to such a growth. We then look at the implications of this trend in terms of the benefits and risks to the individual and wider society, and the safeguards in place to minimise these risks. We go on to consider these issues in the context of particular Home Office responsibilities and the fight against crime in general.

14.  We reject crude characterisations of our society as a surveillance society in which all collections and means of collecting information about citizens are networked and centralised in the service of the state. Yet the potential for surveillance of citizens in public spaces and private communications has increased to the extent that ours could be described as a surveillance society unless trust in the Government's intentions in relation to data and data sharing is preserved. The Home Office in particular and Government in general must take every possible step to maintain and build on this trust: our Report provides a starting point.


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Prepared 8 June 2008