Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 278 - 279)

TUESDAY 26 JUNE 2007

DR CHRIS POUNDER, DR ERIC METCALFE, MS SHAMI CHAKRABARTI AND MR JAGO RUSSELL

  Q278  Chairman: Good morning. Thank you very much indeed. I know that you have largely, most of you, been able to hear the previous session, or most of it. Thank you very much indeed for coming to this session on "A Surveillance Society?". I think you have all given evidence to the Select Committee in the past, but if each of you could introduce yourselves for the record.

  Mr Russell: I am Jago Russell, policy officer at Liberty.

  Ms Chakrabarti: Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty.

  Dr Metcalfe: Eric Metcalfe, Director of Human Rights Policy at JUSTICE.

  Dr Pounder: Dr Chris Pounder, Editor, Data Protection and Privacy Practice.

  Q279  Chairman: Can I start by asking perhaps Liberty and JUSTICE to be as precise as you can about what you see from a civil libertarian point of view as the real practical risks for individuals of the sort of surveillance society that has been conjured up by the Information Commissioner and which was responsible for us having this inquiry?

  Ms Chakrabarti: It is a wonderful phrase, is it not, "surveillance society"? If it has got us all talking about the issue, and it has got your Committee engaged, then that is a really good thing, because our concern would be that, alongside other very important societal concerns, like security, like public health, as we have heard, sometimes the value of personal privacy can be lost. There are very good reasons why that value can be lost and forgotten on occasion. Of course, by definition, privacy is a qualified right, unlike some of the rights that Liberty and JUSTICE defend sometimes—the right not to be tortured, the right not to be arbitrarily detained. Privacy, by definition, is a qualified right. We know that we are social creatures. The moment we come together, even in very primitive societies, or when we come together in families, let alone complex modern societies, we do give up a little bit of varying degrees of personal privacy, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes not voluntarily, but in a way that is, of course, necessary and proportionate in that society. The danger is that, because it is a qualified right for the individual, but also, I would argue, some of it is very important to society more generally, to the flavour of democratic society, if we are not quite rigorous enough about the defence of something that is about balancing that right against other great concerns like security, health and so on, we can, without really noticing and without having proper public debate perhaps, lose very important things from democratic society. For example, without really quite a significant degree of value paid to personal privacy, there would be a society where the dignity of the individual has been compromised; intimacy between people, confidence between people and trust in big institutions, whether it is the Health Service or the Government, would be lost. Where we are, I would argue (and I think Mr Thomas would agree), perhaps Britain in 2007 is at a place where there are great technological opportunities to interfere with privacy, often for very good reasons, and we just need to make sure that the ethical, political and legal debate keeps apace with all of this technological development.


 
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