Select Committee on Home Affairs Fifth Report

2  Surveillance in context

What do we mean by surveillance?

15.  For the purposes of this inquiry we have used surveillance as a term that encompasses not only the use of monitoring and recording technology but also the creation and use of databases of personal information and the record of our communications in the digital age. The Information Commissioner has called this "the electronic footprint which people leave in their daily lives":

Every time you click your mouse, you make a phone call, use a payment card, drive your car ... there is potential surveillance there.[1]

Our transactions are tracked, our interactions identified and our preferences profiled—all with the potential to build up an increasingly detailed and intrusive picture of how each of us lives our life.[2]

16.  In autumn 2006, the Information Commissioner asked the Surveillance Studies Network[3] to produce a report on the 'surveillance society'. The Network illustrated its research by means of a scenario, a 'week in the life' of an imaginary family in 2006, which it followed through to show how surveillance would impinge on such a family in the year 2016.[4]

17.  The Information Commissioner told us that in asking the Surveillance Studies Network to produce its report, his Office was to a large extent "trying to create a wake-up call" by posing the question:

are we moving towards some sort of surveillance society, where technology is extensively and routinely used to track and record our activities and our movements?[5]

The growth of surveillance potential


18.  Work carried out by the Surveillance Studies Network and the Royal Academy of Engineering amongst others has pointed to a rapid growth in the range and reach of various methods of surveillance. According to the Surveillance Studies Network, "the foundation for all new surveillance technologies is the database" and "huge stores of personal data held on ordinary people are now central to both private businesses and public services". [6]

Data collection in the private sector

19.  In the private sector databases are created, maintained and used by—amongst many others—banks and building societies, credit reference agencies and retailers which run loyalty or reward schemes. The scale of this data collection and storage has increased greatly in the last decade.

20.  Paying for goods with debit or credit cards creates what the Royal Academy of Engineering calls "a rich trail of information about purchases".[7] There were 4.9 billion debit card purchases in 2007, an increase of 9% on 2006, and internet card payments rose nearly four-fold over the last five years, to 34 billion.[8]

21.   The Financial Services Authority says that "If you're an adult living in the UK, it's almost certain your name and details are held in the files of the three main credit reference agencies".[9] An individual's credit report or credit file contains public record information such as details held on the Electoral Roll and any court judgments or records of bankruptcy, details of current credit agreements and agreements arranged over the past six years, and details of other credit checks.

22.  The largest customer loyalty or reward scheme in the UK is Nectar, run by Loyalty Management Group (LMG). LMG says that approximately 50% of all UK households participate in the programme and that nineteen Nectar cards are swiped every second of the day.[10]

23.  When consumers register for the Nectar scheme they are asked for contact details, lifestyle information and other details for security checks. When they use their cards, Nectar collects the date, location and total value of the transaction.[11] Tesco collects this information and the details of each purchase made by customers who participate in the Tesco Clubcard loyalty scheme. The information is held for two years before being anonymised so that it is not attributable to an individual Clubcard user.[12]

Telecommunications and the internet

24.  According to the Office for National Statistics, use of information and communications technology (ICT) has grown rapidly in the last decade:

Although digital technology is relatively new, it is already approaching the near universal levels of use of older technologies, such as analogue television or the telephone.[13]

Household internet access, for example, grew from 10% in 1998-99 to 55% in 2005-06 and rose to 61%—over 15 million households—in 2007. Between 1996-7 and 2005-06 the proportion of UK households owning a mobile telephone rose from 17% to 79%.[14] Research carried out by the Oxford Internet Institute found that households in Britain have rapidly moved to broadband internet access: of households with internet access, the proportion using a broadband connection rose from 19% in 2003 to 85% in 2007.[15]

25.  Growth in these and other forms of electronic communication has increased the capacity of service providers to collect, store and use information about individuals' activities. For example, data from communications traffic can help to locate mobile telephones and catalogue website visits. Providers use such data for a variety of reasons, including billing, network management and prevention of fraud.

Data collection in the public sector

26.  A strategy published by the Cabinet Office in 2005, Transformational Government: enabled by technology, set out the Government's intention to harness the kinds of opportunities provided by technology and used in the private sector to tailor services and marketing to meet customers' needs and increase efficiency:

The specific opportunities lie in improving transactional services (e.g. tax and benefits), in helping front line public servants to be more effective (e.g. doctors, nurses, police and teachers), in supporting effective policy outcomes (e.g. in joined-up, multi-agency approaches to offender management and domestic violence), in reforming the corporate services and infrastructure which government uses behind the scenes, and in taking swifter advantage of the latest technologies developed for the wider market.[16]

27.  In line with the objectives set out in this strategy, the Government's use of databases has become more ambitious in recent years. There are three projects that are especially notable, owing to the sensitive nature of the information to be collected or collated on new or adapted databases. The NHS Care Records Service aims to provide a nationally available lifelong patient record in order to support the delivery of care to patients and the secondary analysis and reporting of information for a variety of purposes such as healthcare planning and commissioning, clinical audit, research and clinical governance.[17] We discuss health-related databases in more detail below at paragraph 86.

28.  Under powers granted by the Children Act 2004 and as part of the Every Child Matters Programme the Department for Children, Schools and Families is to establish ContactPoint, a database which will contain—amongst other details—minimal identifying information for every child in England, along with contact details for parents or carers, educational setting and GP practice and for other practitioners or services working with them.[18] We discuss the collection of children's data in more detail below at paragraph 92.

29.  The Home Office has overall responsibility for implementing the National Identity Scheme, under the Identity Cards Act 2006. The National Identity Register will hold identity-related information, including biometric information, for everyone who has enrolled in the Scheme.[19] Anyone over the age of 16 and resident in the UK for more than three months will be eligible for an identity card. From 2011-12 the Identity and Passport Service will enrol British citizens in the National Identity Scheme "at high volumes" offering a choice of receiving a separate identity card, passport or both.[20] We discuss the National Identity Scheme in more detail below at paragraph 227.

Video or 'CCTV' surveillance

30.  The Royal Academy of Engineering argues that the extent of recent technological developments in video surveillance, such as the capacity to record, store and share through digital technology, has:

rendered tape-recorded surveillance an obsolete technology, and the term CCTV is for the most part a misleading label. Modern surveillance systems are no longer 'closed-circuit', and increasing numbers of surveillance systems use networked, digital cameras rather than CCTV.[21]

31.  The Surveillance Studies Network traces the growth in use of closed-circuit television (CCTV) in the UK to the late 1980s, "prompted by attempts to reverse the decline of city centre shopping districts as well as fear of terrorism, crime and hooliganism". The Network quotes estimates that there may now be 4.2 million CCTV cameras in Britain, although the reliability of this figure is open to question, and that a person can be captured on over 300 cameras each day.[22] The Royal Academy of Engineering states that "The UK has more surveillance cameras than any other country and the number of cameras in public spaces continues to grow".[23]

32.  The Home Office does not collect figures for the number of CCTV cameras. In answer to a Parliamentary Question, the Home Office said that "given the huge number of cameras, operated by a very wide range of individuals, private organisations and public bodies, it is very difficult to accurately assess the total number employed".[24]

Awareness of surveillance and surveillance-related concerns

33.  The publication of the report by the Surveillance Studies Network generated a great deal of coverage in the media and prompted headlines about "Big Brother Britain".[25] Several individuals who submitted evidence to our inquiry set out their concerns about living in what they saw as a surveillance society. One associated the introduction of identity cards with "the drift of the state towards surveillance" and the alteration of the relationship between the state and the citizen:

Personally, I don't mind the state knowing where I am, but I do object to the state having the right to know.[26]

34.  A survey conducted by the Information Commissioner's Office in 2005-06 found high levels of concern amongst individuals about the use, transfer and security of their personal information. In 2005-06 the survey found that 80% of individuals held such concerns.[27] In another survey, conducted in February 2008, after the HMRC incident and other high-profile data losses from public bodies, 85% of respondents said that they worried more about the safety of their personal details than they used to and 72% said that they felt powerless over how their personal information was looked after.[28]

35.  The Information Commissioner told us, however, that his work on surveillance had been designed as a "wake-up call" and that there was a "need for the public to be aware of what is going on".[29] In particular the Commissioner pointed to a lack of awareness that advances in technology have had a significant impact on the extent to which everyday activities may be subject to surveillance.[30]

36.  Advances in technology have supported a significant increase in the potential for surveillance of the activities of individuals in the United Kingdom. We welcome the Information Commissioner's efforts to raise awareness of this trend, particularly in relation to the collection of personal data, and to encourage the Government to consider the implications of the growth of surveillance for the individual and society. We recommend that the Information Commissioner lay before Parliament an annual report on surveillance, and that the Government produce a response to each report, also to be laid before Parliament. We further recommend that Parliament have the opportunity to hold an annual debate on this issue.


1   Q 1 (Richard Thomas) Back

2   Ev 196 Back

3   a non-profit organisation dedicated to the study of surveillance in all its forms, and the free distribution of scholarly information Back

4   Surveillance Studies Network, A Report on the Surveillance Society, revised with a new postscript, March 2007 Back

5   Q 1 (Richard Thomas) Back

6   Surveillance Studies Network, A Report on the Surveillance Society: Public Discussion Document (September 2006), p 5 Back

7   Royal Academy of Engineering, Dilemmas of Privacy and Surveillance: Challenges of Technological Change (March 2007), p 36 Back

8   APACS, Key Facts and Figures: plastic cards and how we used them in 2007. Available at Back

9   Financial Services Authority, Money Made Clear, available at: Back

10   Loyalty Management Group, "About LMG: who we are". Available at: Back

11   Q 118 (Martin Briggs) Back

12   Q 124 (Nick Eland) Back

13   Office for National Statistics, Focus on the Digital Age (2007 edition), p 2 Back

14   Office for National Statistics, Focus on the Digital Age (2007 edition), pp 2, 4; Office for National Statistics, National Statistics online. Available at:  Back

15   William H. Dutton and Ellen J. Helsper, the Internet in Britain 2007, Oxford Internet Institute, July 2007, p 10  Back

16   Cabinet Office, Transformational Government: Enabled by Technology, Cm 6683, November 2005, p 3. The emphasis appears in the original. Back

17   Ev 217, 222 Back

18   HC Deb, 27 November 2007, cols 10-11WS Back

19   Identity and Passport Service, About ID cards and the national identity scheme. Available at: Back

20   Identity and Passport Service, When will the first cards be issued?. Available at: Back

21   Royal Academy of Engineering, Dilemmas of Privacy and Surveillance: Challenges of Technological Change (March 2007), p 33 Back

22   Surveillance Studies Network, A Report on the Surveillance Society: Public Discussion Document (September 2006), pp 7-8; Surveillance Studies Network, A Report on the Surveillance Society: Full Report: revised with a new postscript (March 2007), p 19; ACPO queries this total: see Qq447-48 and Ev 94 Back

23   Ev 166 Back

24   HC Deb, 8 January 2007, col 128W Back

25   e.g. "How we may all be microchipped like dogs in Big Brother Britain", Daily Mail, 30 October 2006 Back

26   Ev 112 Back

27   Information Commissioner's Office, Annual Report Summary 2005-06 (July 2006), p 13 Back

28   Personal Information Survey, prepared on behalf of Tri Media by ICM Research for the Information Commissioner's Office. Available at:  Back

29   Q 1 (Richard Thomas) Back

30   Ev 196 Back

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