Statewatch article: RefNo# 27626
UK Information Commissioner: "Surveillance society" a reality
Statewatch Bulletin; vol 17 no 1 January-March 2007
The UK's Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, has said the surveillance society he warned Britain was "sleepwalking into" is now a reality. Speaking in November 2006, following the publication of a report by the Surveillance Studies Network, he called for debate over the acceptability of the endemic surveillance we now live in:

We've got to say where do we want the lines to be drawn? How much do we want to have surveillance changing the nature of society in a democratic nation?

The report warned that Britain is now the "most surveilled" western state with peoples' movements and activities routinely monitored by methods and technologies that they are largely unaware of. By 2016 the report foresees a multitude of ways in which new surveillance technology will have impacted upon our daily routines. Examples include large rises in aggressive consumer marketing, pay-as-you-drive schemes with cars tracked by Radio Frequency ID chips (RFID), and employers using medical records as a basis for allocating jobs. The report's co-writer, Dr David Murakami-Wood, said

We have more CCTV cameras and we have looser laws on privacy and data protection...We really do have a society which is premised both on state secrecy and the state not giving up its supposed right to keep information under control while, at the same time, wanting to know as much as it can about us.

RFID chips and Oyster cards

An example of this is the fitting of around 500,000 wheelie bins throughout England with RFID chips that enable councils to monitor the amount of waste discarded by householders. The penny sized chip in each identifies the house number to the rubbish truck which then weighs the bins, records the amount of refuse inside it and, when back at the depot, transfers the data onto a central computer. The scheme will facilitate government plans to charge people on the basis of how much non-recyclable waste they produce. Further, many of the consumer products people eventually throw away now carry RFID chips similar to those implanted in the wheelie bins. In theory these can also be read by the truck's scanning equipment thus providing the potential for extensive profiling of peoples' purchasing habits. And yet, according to The Register, "in most cases home owners were not informed about the deployment of the technology."

In London Oyster cards used to travel on public transport are now routinely used by police to monitor the movement of suspects in criminal investigations. According to a More4 television programme, Suspect Nation, around 170 requests to examine Oyster card records are made every month. This is compared with 43 a year ago and only one 18 months ago. In response to these figures, Liberal Democrat MP Lynne Featherstone demanded "to know why it's risen by 300 per cent, why they are asking, what are they looking for and who they are after and did they get them? Are the people whose personal details are given to them [the police] notified?"

Function creep

This is an example of what the Surveillance Society Report identifies as "function creep" whereby:

personal data, collected and used for one purpose and to fulfil one function, often migrate to other ones that extend and intensify surveillance and invasions of privacy beyond what was originally understood and considered socially, ethically and legally acceptable(p9).

The process is also illustrated by two voluntary trial fingerprinting schemes introduced at Heathrow airport in November 2006 for passengers travelling on Cathay Pacific and Emirates. Under the first, miSense, a scan of your passport photo page and right index finger are taken. This data is later used to secure access through the miSense automatic security gate which operates in addition to standard airport security. The second, more advanced scheme, miSenseplus, involves the taking of your passport details, email address, mobile p

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