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  Big Brother Britain 2006: 'We are waking up to a surveillance society all around us'

London Independent | November 2, 2006
Jason Bennetto

Britain has sleepwalked into becoming a surveillance society that increasingly intrudes into our private lives and impacts on everyday activities, the head of the information watchdog warns.

New technology and "invisible" techniques are being used to gather a growing amount of information about UK citizens. The level of surveillance will grow even further in the next 10 years, which could result in a growing number of people being discriminated against and excluded from society, says a report by the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas.

Future developments could include microchip implants to identify and track individuals; facial recognition cameras fitted into lampposts; and unmanned surveillance aircraft, predict the report's authors.

Mr Thomas,who heads an independent body that promotes public access to official information, calls for a debate on what level of surveillance is acceptable.

He said: "Two years ago I warned that we were in danger of sleepwalking into a surveillance society. Today I fear that we are in fact waking up to a surveillance society that is already all around us.

"As ever more information is collected, shared and used, it intrudes into our private space and leads to decisions which directly influence people's lives.

"Mistakes can also easily be made with serious consequences - false matches and other cases of mistaken identity, inaccurate facts or inferences, suspicions taken as reality, and breaches of security.

"I am keen to start a debate about where the lines should be drawn. What is acceptable and what is not?"

He was speaking at the launch of a report funded by the Information Commissioner's Office, which analyses current and future levels of surveillance. The study - "A Surveillance Society"- concludes that routine monitoring is increasing in most areas of life.

This includes the systematic tracking and recording of travel and use of public services; automated use of CCTV; analysis of buying habits and financial transactions; and the monitoring of telephone calls, e-mail and internet use in the workplace.

The major surveillance techniques include:

* Video cameras monitoring buildings, shopping streets and residential areas. Automatic systems can now recognise vehicle number plates and faces.

* Software that analyses spending habits and the data sold to businesses. When we call service centres or apply for loans, insurance or mortgages, how quickly we are served and what we are offered can depend on what we spend, where we live and who we are.

* Electronic tags to monitor offenders on probation.

* DNA taken from those arrested by the police and placed on a database.

* Information stored about foreign travel.

* Smart cards in schools to determine where children are, what they eat or the books they borrow.

* Taps on telephones, e-mails and internet use that can screened for key words and phrases by British and US intelligence services.

The Government also still plans to introduce a new system of biometric ID cards, including "biometrics" - fingerprints and iris scans - linked to a database of personal information.

The group of academics who compiled the report have also predicted future trends in surveillance in the next decade. The include:

* Shoppers being scanned as they enter stores. This will be matched with loyalty card data to affect how they are handled, with big spenders given preferential treatment over others.

* Cars linked to global satellite navigation systems which will provide the quickest route to avoid congestion and allow police to monitor speed and to track selected cars.

* Employees subjected to biometric and psychometric tests plus lifestyle profiles with diagnostic health tests common place. Jobs are refused to those who are seen as a health risk.

* Schools using card systems to allow parents to monitor what their children eat, their attendance, academic and drug test results

* Facial recognition systems to monitor our movements using tiny cameras in lampposts and walls, and unmanned aircraft above.
David Murakami Wood, a co-author of the report carried out by the Surveillance Studies Network said: "The level of surveillance in this country should shock people - it is infiltrating everything we do. The question is whether we want that or not. Most people do not understand how the information is used - for example details obtained from supermarket loyalty cards and credit cards are bought and sold to other companies to provide complex profiles of individual customers.

"It is difficult to challenge these organisations, find out what data they have on you, or to change inaccurate information."

Keeping up with the Joneses ­ day in the life of one family

It is London in 2006. The Jones family are returning from their holiday in Florida.

In the US they were photographed and fingerprinted on arrival. At Gatwick they have their hand luggage X-rayed and hand-searched, and they are all questioned. Passports ­ one member of the family has dual nationality with Pakistan ­ are checked. Details of the flight and all other travel information is recorded.

The family are seen by airport security cameras and on the courtesy bus, which drops them at the car park, which is also covered by CCTV.

As the family drives out of the airport, they switch on a sat-nav system, which guides them home, but also alerts them to speed and traffic-light cameras on the way ­ which record their progress. The son uses his mobile to call a friend ­ this is logged by the telephone company and could be used by police to locate where the phone was at the time.

On the way back they stop at an out-of-town mall. CCTV records them in the car park and entering the supermarket. All details of their shopping is recorded when they pay using a loyalty card. This will be used to build up a customer "profile" and can be sold on to others.

The money they spend on credit cards is also monitored to check for any unusual spending patterns, which could indicate the card has been stolen. The amounts spent and whether the family keep within agreed credit levels is also monitored and will be used by the bank or building society.

Later they go through the congestion charging zone ­ which they pay for via the mobile ­ and all details, including photographs of them entering central London, are recorded.

At home in central London they unload under the watch of a neighbour's private CCTV system. Waiting at home is a pile of junk mail. The names and addresses of the family have been obtained from a variety of databanks.

The son goes to his room to read a letter telling him his criminal records check is clear and that he has a place on a voluntary scheme.

He orders a takeaway ­ his address, card details and previous orders are already held by the pizza chain.

Britain under surveillance

* The national DNA database holds profiles on about 3.5 million people.

* There are an estimated 4.2 million CCTV cameras in Britain: one for every 14 people.

* More than half of the UK population posseses a loyalty card issued by the firm that operates the Nectar scheme.

* Since 2002 there have been more than 8 million criminal records checks for jobs, of which around 400,000 contained convictions or police intelligence information.

* There are plans to expand capacity to read vehicle number plates from 35 million reads per day to 50 million by 2008.

* Some 216 catalogue companies in the UK are signed up to the Abacus data-sharing consortium, with information on 26 million individuals.

* The database of fingerprints contains nearly 6 million sets of prints.

* An individual can be captured on more than 300 cameras each day.

* By the end of 2002 law enforcement bodies had made more than 400,000 requests for data from mobile network operators.

* The number of motorists caught by speed cameras rose from 300,000 in 1996 to over 2 million in 2004.

* In the year to April 2005 some 631 adults and 5,751 juveniles were electronically tagged.

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