The BBC has today highlighted a recent House of Lords’ debate, noting that:
‘Electronic surveillance and collection of personal data are “pervasive” in British society and threaten to undermine democracy, peers have warned. CCTV cameras and the DNA database were two examples of threats to privacy, the Lords constitution committee said. It called for compensation for people subject to illegal surveillance. The government said CCTV and DNA were “essential” to fight crime but Liberty said recent abuses of power meant “even the innocent have a lot to fear”‘.
The BBC report goes on to note that:
‘Human rights campaigners Liberty welcomed the report. Director Shami Chakrabarti said: “Liberty’s postbag suggests that the House of Lords is more in touch with public concerns that our elected government. “Over the past seven years we’ve been told ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ but a stream of data bungles and abuses of power suggest that even the innocent have a lot to fear.”‘
‘Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, urged the government to “reassert” its control over the use of data.He said: “Governments tend to think that gathering new information on citizens is a good thing. But that’s not true if our privacy is undermined and our data isn’t secure.”We need to see privacy by design: you can’t bolt on privacy at the end of big government IT projects, we need privacy safeguards built into systems right at the start.”‘
It is good to see this debate taking place. Britain has more digital surveillance than anywhere else in the world, and this provides the context for very real ethical questions. There are those who say that states are too inefficient to be able to manage this wealth of data effectively – and there is some evidence to support this. However, even if this is true at a practical level, it does not negate the importance of the ethical questions. ICTs are enabling fundamental changes to take place in the relationship between states/governments and societies, and we need to ask whether these are ‘right’. Just because it is possible to use these new technologies for surveillance purposes, does not mean that it is right to do so