Select Committee on Home Affairs Written Evidence


Memorandum submitted by R A Collinge


  The submission argues:

  For the protection of individual liberty the powers of the state to gather information on its citizens need to be restricted, controlled and if possible rolled back. Assumptions are made that vast data gathering schemes will be more effective than more conventional approaches which may be both more efficient and cheaper means of addressing undoubted problems.

  There is a fundamental difference between private information gathering which the citizen can, with adequate information, choose to join or not and the data gathered compulsorily by the state.

  Particular care also needs to given to the control of CCTV and other data collected by various bodies without the individual having the ability to object.

  1.  One starts from an assumption that the executive of government has, in this country and elsewhere, understandably sought to increase its power in order to achieve its objectives. Reaction to this inevitable pressure has resulted in documents such as the Magna Carta and much more recently the Human Rights Act. Politicians will always argue that their proposals are fair and reasonable and that they would in no way misuse them. Unfortunately history does not bear this out.

  2.  The gathering of information is seen as one of the main ways in which power can be increased. It will in all cases be for "good reason" but the development of the national identity data base, amongst others, will fundamentally change the relationship between the individual and the state. The state will become the master of its citizens rather than their servant undertaking solely tasks than can be better done at that state level.

  It should not be necessary to argue any further for restrictions on the capacity of the state to intrude on the privacy of its citizens but given that the Identity Card Act has been made law by a Parliament apparently oblivious of its historical responsibilities to control the executive it is necessary to respond further to this form of surveillance and others.

  3.  There is a fundamental difference between private data bases and the state sponsored ones. The state will require compulsory ID cards and the consequent entries in the National Database whilst private ones are voluntary. We can all choose to opt out of private schemes by avoiding credit, loyalty and store cards etc.

4.  Private Databases

  The key guideline here is that the individual is given the maximum information as to how his or her data are to be used: that he or she can restrict the use of these data and that the system is satisfactorily regulated. Warnings should be given that the data are at risk from criminals and others who will inevitably find ways to steal data. The more data there are in any one place the more the incentive to find ways of stealing them.

  There should be an absolute ban on any privately held data being available to any government department or agency.

5.  Government databases

  The Human Rights Act allows "interferences" with the general right to privacy if that "interference":

    —    is "in accordance with the law"

    —    has "legitimate objectives" such as national security, public safety, economic wellbeing, the prevention of crime , the protection of health or morals or the protections of rights or freedoms of others; and

    —    is "necessary in a Democratic Society".

  Clearly these wordings are open to very wide interpretations and will need very close scrutiny. For example one mans "morals" may well be another's anathema. George Orwell warned against "Thought police".

  Thus there need to be very tight restrictions on the gathering and use of information which the state will be gathering compulsorily. Access to law to determine whether the Act has been complied with will be essential, but appears at risk because of the restrictions currently being placed on legal aid. If real access is available then such things as the sharing of data between government departments and agencies may be controllable. Government data should never be available to private bodies.

  The relevant Registrar may need enhanced powers to police these records.

  Particular areas for concern include the gathering of information on children, the retention of DNA records by police even though an individual may not even have been charged , the practical difficulty of having a record corrected, the fact that no system of "profiling" has yet been able to cope with the infinitely variable nature of human beings, the certainty that the records will be criminally misused and the likelihood—from the evidence of history—that the costs of collecting data will far exceed all estimates. Has proper thought been given to the possibility that many of the claimed advantages of the sorts of record keeping and surveillance being promulgated could be better achieved by more conventional means such as more police or even a new body of border police? For example one Home Secretary accepted that identity cards would not have prevented the London bombers.

6.  Other surveillance

  CCTV is more used in this country than anywhere else. Tighter controls need to be in place to regulate the circumstances in which it can be used. Criteria need to be developed to decide how and when both public and private surveillance of this nature is essential and has real value. In practice is it avoided by criminals who are aware of it? How long can or should tapes of such surveillance be retained and by whom? What controls are there on the use of such records by persons other than those making the record?

7.  Road pricing

  It has been suggested that national road pricing be introduced under a scheme which will require all vehicles to be monitored at all times. It is impossible to overstate the concern that this brings in giving a myriad of officials the power to find out where any vehicle was at any time. Such a level of surveillance would have been welcomed by the Stasi amongst others.

  The costs of such a scheme would be enormous. Why apparently is so little attention paid to the wide range of actions which could be undertaken at relatively little cost instead? Perhaps it is because it is easier and more rewarding to put forward one big idea whatever its cost in every sense rather than address such minutiae. These actions could include:

    —    free school buses—an enormous potential reduction in congestion;

    —    extension of the Manchester Metro which has been talked about for many years but nothing is done;

    —    slip roads at all possible junctions to allow traffic to filter to the left; and

    —    Crossrail.

  And many many others all over the country which would reduce congestion relatively easily and without the enormous risks to "our way of life".

8.  Summary

  This country has been "sleep walking "into a surveillance society for a number of years. Real efforts now need to be made to ensure that the very nature of "our way of life" which the Prime Minister seeks to protect is not subverted from within.

April 2007

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