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Increased security need not lead to an erosion of personal privacy, according to an optimistic study by the Royal Academy of Engineering.

The academics and security consultants behind the Dilemmas of Privacy and Surveillance report, released this week, reckon it's wrong to believe that increased security means more collection and processing of personal information.

They argue that, providing the right engineering systems are put in place, it's possible have both increased privacy and more security.

We live in an era of ubiquitous CCTV surveillance, identity cards, and corporate databases - to say nothing of the assault on privacy that has accompanied the War on Terror. The report's authors reckon that engineers have a key role in making sure privacy safeguards are built into systems. For example, services for travel and shopping can be designed to maintain privacy by allowing people to buy goods and use public transport anonymously.

"It should be possible to sign up for a loyalty card without having to register it to a particular individual - consumers should be able to decide what information is collected about them," said Professor Nigel Gilbert, chairman of the academy working group that produced the report.

Initiatives such as the UK card scheme will likely lead to more databases holding sensitive personal information. The move towards providing more government services online accelerates this trend. The academy concedes that human error (or, we'd add, technical shortcomings) can lead to personal data being lost or stolen. There's also the risk of accident or sabotage.

Designing for privacy

The academy's report calls on the government to make use of engineering expertise in managing the risks posed by surveillance and data management technologies, a comment that omits to mention the government's poor track record on implementing IT systems.

The study also calls for stricter guidelines for companies who hold personal data, requiring companies to store data securely, to notify customers in the event of security breaches, and increased openness in information about what data is being used for.

"Technologies for collecting, storing, transmitting, and processing data are developing rapidly with many potential benefits, from making paying bills more convenient to providing better healthcare," said Professor Gilbert. "However, these techniques could make a significant impact on our privacy. Their development must be monitored and managed so that the effects are properly understood and controlled."

The aims of the report's authors are noble, but some of their suggested solutions, such as protecting personal information by methods "similar to the digital rights management software used to safeguard copyrighted electronic material like music releases", fly in the face of evidence that such technologies have proved ineffective. In addition, there's little evidence that governments or large corporations have paid much heed to privacy concerns in implementing systems to date.

Another serious problem, which the report only partially addresses, is that many privacy-invading technologies have already been put into action without the safeguards the academy would like see applied. Chief among such technologies is camera surveillance. The report calls for more research into how public spaces can be monitored while minimising the impact on privacy.

Authors of the study are holding a free evening event at the Science Museum's Dana Centre in London on Tuesday 27 March. ®

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