Surveillance, citizens and the state

A bit like the snow, some news stories are piling up almost too fast to blog about… so rather than include links inline as usual, I will put them all at the end of this post.

The House of Lords Constitution Committee has released a report entitled Surveillance: “Citizens and the State”, in which considers whether the pervasive nature of surveillance in 21st century Britain has fundamentally altered the relationship between the citizen and the state. If that seems to echo the Information Commissioner’s 2004 comment that the UK was in danger of “sleepwalking into a surveillance society”, and his subsequent 2006 report setting out some of the ways in which that was happening, that’s no accident. The Constitution Committee acknowledges that that was the impetus for its inquiry from 2004-2007 and subsequently the current report.

The report’s opening paragraph is clear and concise enough to deserve quoting in full:

“Surveillance is an inescapable part of life in the UK. Every time we make a telephone call, send an email, browse the internet, or even walk down our local high street, our actions may be monitored and recorded. To respond to crime, combat the threat of terrorism, and improve administrative efficiency, successive UK governments have gradually constructed one of the most extensive and technologically advanced surveillance systems in the world. At the same time, similar developments in the private sector have contributed to a profound change in the character of life in this country. The development of electronic surveillance and the collection and processing of personal information have become pervasive, routine, and almost taken for granted. Many of these surveillance practices are unknown to most people, and their potential consequences are not fully appreciated.”

That sounds to me like a “yes”. However, and I in no way mean this as a criticism, the report continues with a further 129 pages of analysis. It examines the issue from a number of different stakeholder perspectives: regulators, government, parliament and citizen, and also looks at Privacy Enhancing Technologies (PETs) and the closely-related issue of where the boundary between technology and policy should most sensibly fall. As far as the citizen perspective is concerned, it stresses the importance of consent, and notes the extent to which that depends on adequate information. All in all, it’s a very thorough piece of work.

One of its more worrying sections is Chapter 7, on the role of Parliament. It notes that witnesses to the inquiry described Parliament as being the only body which can block undesirable legislation, and act on behalf of the citizen in determining how far surveillance powers should be able to go. It goes on to say that Parliament is often prevented from giving privacy-related legislation the necessary scrutiny, because the laws are enacted in the form of vaguely-worded primary legislation, with the details put through later as secondary legislation (the Identity Cards Bill 2006 being a prime example). Parliament cannot amend or vote on secondary legislation.

The report also presents a valuable analysis of the Committee’s perspective on constitutional factors, including:

  • The laws which enable surveillance, data collection and data sharing;
  • The laws and regulations which are intended to protect the citizen;
  • The events which, over the period of the Committee’s work, have shaped policy in this area.

It is absolutely clear from the report that the legislative and regulatory environment is an extremely complex one, with multiple agencies able to collect and share data under the provisions of multiple laws (for example, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, the ID Cards Act, and the Coroners and Justice Bill (!)), and with protection for the citizen correspondingly fragmented and piecemeal.

If you do read the full report, I’d offer one piece of advice: don’t be tempted to leap straight to Chapter 9 (Recommendations) in search of the quick prĂ©cis. The body of the report is also punctuated with very specific and highly relevant recommendations.

In short, the report presents ample factual evidence in support of the opening paragraph.

The government’s reported response is rather more succinct. According to today’s BBC news article, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith ‘has rejected claims of a surveillance society as “not for one moment” true and called for “common sense” guidelines on CCTV and DNA.

She recently announced a consultation on possible changes to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, under which public bodies can conduct covert surveillance and access data, to clarify who can use such powers and prevent “frivolous” investigations.”

On the face of it, this looks like a perpetuation of some of the shortcomings described in the Constitution Committee’s report.


House of Lords Constitution Committee’s report – (from the ICO website)
ICO response to the Committee’s report

ICO memorandum on data-sharing provisions in the Coroners and Justice Bill

ICO report on the Surveillance Society

Another useful couple of documents:

ICO paper on “what is personal data” – drafted in 2007, so good but probably a little out of date regarding the Article 29 Group’s current position;

ICO paper on “what is data”. May seem a daft question to have to ask, but that in itself gives an indication of how difficult it can be to work out whether information about a citizen is indeed protected by the law. (Let alone what to do about it if it is…)