NEWS

Is Britain Becoming a Surveillance Society?

By Matthew Harwood

It's easy to feel like Winston Smith did when wandering around the streets of British cities, especially London. Bets are you're being watched by the nearly 4.2 million cameras, which the government and private companies have installed to deter crime.

And Britons don't like it much it seems.

According to new poll commissioned by  U.K. human rights group Liberty, Britons are concerned Big Brother's eyes are everywhere and they are increasingly  worried about what happens to the data collected by networks of CCTV cameras and other government programs.

According to a Liberty report based on the poll, only 17 percent of Britons trust the government and public authorities to keep their personal information completely confidential. Forty-eight percent of Britons feel the government holds too much personal information on them. And the coup de grâce, 57 percent of Britons feel the United Kingdom is a surveillance society.

But government's intrusiveness doesn't stop with CCTV cameras, says Liberty.

The government is compiling massive amounts of information on its citizens. In 2010, the National Identity Register becomes compulsory which will require citizens give the government their personal details so a person's identity can be proved.

According to the Home Office:

Public and private sector organisations will be able to check the information held on the National Identity Register to help them establish the identity of their customers and staff.  For example, you may be asked to prove your identity when opening a bank account or registering with a doctor.

Liberty, on the other hand, claims:

Authorities use the information for “data matching” in which computers sift data to identify potential criminal behaviour instead of developing intelligence-led investigations.

Another example of the government's undue interference with individual rights and privacy, says Liberty, is the National DNA Database (NDNAD), the world's most complete DNA collection with 3.9 million samples. The database holds samples of  5.2 percent of Britain's population. A similar database in the United States only holds samples from 0.5 percent of the population. Furthermore, police collect DNA samples on arrest, not conviction, and this unfairly over-represents minorities in the database.

Liberty also attacks the growing use of personal communications surveillance authorizations to monitor phone, mobile, and email traffic. Lastly, it says that because there is no evidence that CCTV cameras deter crime, there is no justification for the installation of milions of cameras countrywide.

In a press release for the group's 145-page report, "Overlooked," Liberty recommends several solutions to restore Britons' privacy. These include new legislation to regulate CCTV use, removing innocent people from the NDNAD, more judicial oversight of personal communications surveillance authorizations, and increasing  the resources and power of Britain's Information Commissioner, the country's privacy watchdog.

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