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Info chief voices doubts over surveillance tech

Airs scepticism at Westminster hearing

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Information Commissioner Richard Thomas yesterday told members of the Home Affairs Select Committee on the Surveillance Society that a proliferation of surveillance technologies were being turned on society in the hope of curing its ills - even though the jury was still out on whether it was effective.

This stance followed the findings of his report on the surveillance society last autumn.

Thomas said he realised that it was not possible to stand "Canute-like" against the tide of technological progress - that there was a "certain inevitability" that state and industry would collect information.

But he cautioned against headlong progress with technologies that had the potential to refashion society in an unsettling mode.

Problems occurred when computers classified people according to binary information, he said, citing the fact that 40 per cent of Black British men were stored on the police DNA database, and running through a list of people who had been treated unfairly after being wrongly or unfairly categorised and sorted according to computer logic.

Committee chairman John Denham was sceptical. He said the Soham murders and ensuing Bichard enquiry had prompted an outcry for "more efficient systems of spreading unproven information about individuals around the country and making that unproven information available to tens of thousands of potential employers. Surely those are two examples where the public say we expect you to put these systems in place".

David Smith, deputy Information Commissioner, noted how information about Ian Huntley that could have prevented the Soham murders was available, but the systems weren't working. However, the new system is not sophisticated enough to prevent people being discriminated against - for having old convictions for things like shop lifting, for example.

Jonathan Bamford, assistant Information Commissioner, said society should ask whether the means were "proportionate to the evil we are trying to address". Would better street lighting and more social workers do a better job at reducing crime?

Despite the sceptical view of technology the ICO staff gave the hearing, they suggested the answer to the problem might also be technological.

The implication was that people couldn't be trusted to dish out social justice when they had the power afforded them by the surveillance state. Alas, said Thomas, people were concerned about protecting their own privacy, but less inclined to care for other people's. ®

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