A Lords committee has lambasted the government for its “ever-increasing” data collection.
The continued construction of databases of citizen information “risks undermining the fundamental relationship between the state and citizens, which is the cornerstone of democracy”, it said.
In a damning new report, ‘Surveillance: Citizens and the State’, the Lords Constitution Committee reminded the government that privacy is “an essential prerequisite” to individuals’ freedom. Whitehall needed to exercise “restraint” in its surveillance of citizens, it said.
A number of large databases are either under construction or already in existence, including the planned database of all phone calls and emails, the NHS ‘spine’ containing health records of everyone in the country, and the National Identity Register.
Britain is potentially the world’s largest user of CCTV, with four million cameras in place, and the country’s DNA database holds records on seven percent of the population, the report said. It also criticised local councils for abusing powers to spy on people littering and to monitor the authenticity of details within school applications.
Lord Goodlad, chairman of the committee, called for more transparency on how data is used. "If the public are to trust that information about them is not being improperly used there should be much more openness about what data is collected, by whom and how it is used,” he said.
"There can be no justification for this gradual but incessant creep towards every detail about us being recorded and pored over by the state.”
The committee made a number of recommendations. It argued that the Information Commissioner’s powers should be strengthened, assessing any Privacy Impact Assessments published by government departments planning new databases.
It also urged the creation of a special parliamentary committee that would scrutinise surveillance and data collection.
The government needed to reassess monitoring and data retention on the national DNA database, as well as setting up codes of practice for CCTV usage, according to the report.
Clearer definitions were needed on how local authorities are allowed to use the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to monitor citizens, the committee said.
Finally, in a severe criticism of the opacity of Whitehall’s data collection, the committee said the government needed to make citizens aware of the sort of data held on them. It must “help citizens understand the privacy issues for themselves and society that may result from the use of surveillance and data processing”, the report said.
Jonathan Bamford, assistant information commissioner, said he welcomed the report, after the Information Commissioner's Office had warned the government for several years about "the dangers of sleepwalking into a surveillance society".
"As more and more information is being collected about us there are significant risks that our personal details are kept for longer than needed, become out of date or fall into the wrong hands," he added.
The Home Office insisted it collected data only when necessary. “The key is to strike the right balance between privacy, protection and sharing of personal data,” a spokesperson said.