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The House of Lords Constitution Committee has warned that increasing use of surveillance by the government and private companies is a serious threat to freedoms and constitutional rights.

The Committee's report said: "The expansion in the use of surveillance represents one of the most significant changes in the life of the nation since the end of the Second World War. Mass surveillance has the potential to erode privacy. As privacy is an essential pre-requisite to the exercise of individual freedom, its erosion weakens the constitutional foundations on which democracy and good governance have traditionally been based in this country."

Increased use of CCTV in public areas, the DNA database, the government's planned national ID card scheme and the various databases of British children are all threatening traditional freedoms, the report cautioned.

The Lords welcomed government moves to increase the powers of the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) and expand its remit so it could consider the impact of government surveillance of the public under the Human Rights Act as well as having a role early on in the formation of government policy.

The Lords want the use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) by local councils to be limited to investigating offences that would be punished by at least two years in prison. Although most RIPA requests are by spooks and police, there has been some use of the Act by local councils.

Further, the peers recommended judicial oversight of surveillance by public bodies and even that the targets of such investigations should be told about them once they are over if no charges are going to be brought.

The Home Office rejected much of this. In a statement it said CCTV and DNA were essential crime-fighting tools and that it was already reviewing the retention of DNA samples and consulting on the use of RIPA. The European Court of Human Rights told the Home Office in December that the retention of innocent people's DNA was illegal.

The Lords said it was time for the Home Office to pay for an independent review of the effectiveness of CCTV in stopping, detecting and investigating crime. They also called for a legally binding code of practise on the use of CCTV by private and public bodies.

The statement said: “The government has been clear that where surveillance or data collection will impact on privacy they should only be used where it is necessary and proportionate. The key is to strike the right balance between privacy, protection and sharing of personal data."

The Lords also called for changes to the three RIPA regulators - the Chief Surveillance Commissioner, the Interception of Communications Commissioner and the Intelligence Services Commissioner. The Lords urged the government to review the need for these three regulators to remove inefficiencies and "disjointed inspection".

ICO Assistant Commissioner Jonathan Bamford said: “For some time we have warned about the dangers of sleepwalking into a surveillance society and the risks to the privacy of individuals. More of our personal details are kept and for increasingly longer periods of time. They can become out of date or fall into the wrong hands and be used in ways to the detriment of individuals."

The ICO supported the Committee's call for it to be allowed to inspect private organisations even without consent, for regulation of CCTV and for government departments to carry out a Privacy Impact Assessment before starting new data grabs.

The ICO also called for the government to alter the Coroners and Justice Bill to more closely mirror the Thomas/Walport Data Sharing Review. As it stands, the Bill grants ministers the power to remove "an existing legal barrier to data sharing". Because we all know the government is constantly hamstrung by its obsessive following of data protection legislation, don't we? The loss of records on almost every UK family notwithstanding, of course. ®

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