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‘Surveillance society' warning on data sharing

Financial Times | August 7, 2007
Michael Peel

Confidential personal data – gleaned from sources as diverse as driving licences, medical records and store loyalty cards – is now often shared without people's knowledge, the information commission will warn on Tuesday, in its latest salvo against what it calls the “surveillance society”.

The commission says the increasingly complex web of information sharing – involving the public and private sectors, and bodies ranging from hospitals to credit reference agencies – can make it hard for people to assert their legal rights to view information held about them.

The commission does not name specific organisations, but its comments echo a growing debate over the increasingly widespread and sophisticated use of information gathered by official agencies and businesses.

The data can be gleaned from sources such as supermarket loyalty cards and Transport for London's Oyster plastic travel ticket.

Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, said there was “almost zero awareness” among the public of the detail of how data was shared, meaning that in some organisations sharing of information was becoming the “default”.

“Very soon, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to stop the data sharing juggernaut,” he said.

Richard Thomas, the information commissioner, has stressed that such sharing can be valuable in some circumstances, but he is also worried it is developing with very little accompanying public debate.

Privacy specialists say the importance of tight monitoring of data-sharing has become ever more acute due to the rise of company marketing databases such as those of the loyalty programmes Tesco Clubcard and Nectar.

The subject has attracted the attention of the Commons home affairs select committee, which in June examined how loyalty card information is shared with the police.

Tesco said it only shared information with law enforcement authorities when “absolutely necessary”, adding that its safeguards to prevent misuse of the personal information it held were “pretty foolproof”.

Another focus of debate is Transport for London's Oyster card, which has been embraced by police as a tool for tracking the movements of suspected criminals. “There is no bulk disclosure of data,” TfL said.

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