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UK is not a surveillance society, MPs claim

Well, not yet anyway

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The Home Affairs Committee has called on the government to follow a "minimum data, held for the minumum time" approach to British citizens' personal information in its long-awaited report into surveillance.

The Committee has decided, after a year long investigation, that the UK is not becoming a surveillance society but warns that function creep still poses a danger. That said, it did not look at ID cards but warned that function creep could again raise concerns of increased surveillance of citizens. After recent government data losses it demanded the Home Office show more detailed plans for how it will make the National Identity Register secure.

It expressed particular concerns that increasing use of databases to store information on children could be used for predictive profiling, with the state singling out children deemed by computers to be likely future criminals.

On Home Office use of databases and sharing data the committee said there were three questions to be answered: "Where should the balance between protecting the public and preserving individual freedom lie? How should this balance shift according to the seriousness of the crime? What impact will this have on the individual and on our society as a whole?"

The politicians also suggested a broader role for the Information Commissioner's Office. The ICO should provide Parliament with an annual report on UK surveillance. It should provide resources to work with the government's chief information officer to improve privacy protection. The committee supported the ICO's demand for better inspection and audit powers.

The ICO could also have a role in carrying out "Privacy Impact Assessments" to be carried out before the Home Office starts a new information gathering project or extends an existing project. PIAs would look at risks and would aim to put in place some protection while the project was being designed. The committee noted that procedures around who can access such information were as important as technology in keeping data safe.

On CCTV use the committee asked the Home Office to carry out more research to show whether or not its use has any impact on reducing crime. It called for a debate before any expansion of the national DNA database and primary legislation to regulate its use.

The committee said it was concerned about the HMP Woodhill case - where conversations between an MP and his constituent were recorded in breach of the Wilson doctrine.

The talking shop also looked at the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. It wants the Home Office to raise public awareness of how and when communications data could be collected and used. It said it had serious concerns about the use of the Act for minor crimes.

The Home Office should make a public statement when a new organisation gets RIPA authorisation, it said.

Such suggestions are moot because the Government is expected to introduce legislation to replace RIPA in the next session of Parliament. We'll have to wait and see whether Gordon Brown and Jacqui Smith accept any of the other suggestions. ®

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