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ICO to investigate surveillance for Parliamentary report

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Privacy watchdog the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) will report to Parliament later this year on the degree to which UK citizens are put under surveillance.

The study will be a follow up to a previous ICO report which said that citizens were at risk from growing pressure in Government to share information between departments and even with the private sector, and that companies' data gathering threatened to create a two-tier consumer society.

"Two years ago I warned that we were in danger of sleepwalking into a surveillance society," said then-Commissioner Richard Thomas on the launch of that report. "Today I fear that we are in fact waking up to a surveillance society that is already all around us."

The ICO has commissioned a new study into surveillance in the UK which will be the basis of its report to Parliament later this year. Parliament's Home Affairs Select Committee has asked the ICO to make the surveillance report.

The Surveillance Studies Network (SSN) will produce the study on which the ICO will base its findings. SSN, which is a charitable company, will produce the factual analysis on the ways and the degree to which ordinary UK citizens are put under surveillance.

The new report will be the follow up to a 2006 ICO report 'A Surveillance Society', also produced by SSN.

An ICO statement said that the report would be "an analysis of developments in surveillance and the collection of information about individuals since the report, A Surveillance Society, was produced for the ICO in 2006".

"This new analysis will accompany the Information Commissioner’s 2010 report to Parliament on the state of surveillance, in which the ICO will highlight any significant issues that require particular attention," the ICO said.

That 2006 report found that more information on more people was gathered more routinely than ever before, and that it was beginning to have an adverse impact on people's day to day lives.

It described a near-future in which wealthy, educated people would receive better, faster service from companies while slowing down the physical social and economic movements of poorer people.

Explaining that report's findings to technology law podcast OUT-LAW Radio in 2006, assistant Commissioner Jonathan Bamford said that Government and private enterprise were increasingly relying on data about people that could seriously damage their future prospects.

"If you are talking about building up profiles of people you are going to find there's an element of social sorting going on," he said. "You actually see that some people become favoured and others treated with suspicion."

"You could be the best behaved child in the class but if the profile that's generated on you based on your relatives show you as being a risk of being disruptive or being one of the 20% of people who commit 80% of the crime in later life you're going to be treated in a particular way whoever comes into contact with you, however you are. There are worries there for the future for social stigmatisation, social exclusion, a society of haves and have nots," he said.

The ICO said that the new report should concentrate on the day-to-day monitoring of everyday activity, rather than the kind of specific, covert surveillance that individuals might experience in exceptional circumstances.

"The study should take account of the developments in technology, policy, law and practice but should be focussed on the practical consequences of these developments for individuals and society now and in the immediate future," said the invitation to tender for the research. "The focus should be more on the surveillance that individuals face as they live their everyday lives rather than the specific covert surveillance activities."

'Surveillance is ever-present' OUT-LAW Radio report can be heard here.

Copyright © 2010, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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