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We're living in a surveillance society

The Marlborough Express | April 12, 2007

We can't say we weren't warned. In his dark novel, 1984, George Orwell predicted a nightmare society, where cameras and computers spy on citizens' every move, writes The Marlborough Express in an editorial.

Now comes a newspaper report from Britain where it says there are 32 closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras within 200m of Orwell's former home in Islington North London.

Britain has become the extreme case of the surveillance society, with latest studies showing the country has an estimated 4.2 million CCTV cameras - one for every 14 people in the country.

And New Zealand's privacy commissioner, Marie Shroff, has added her warning to the growth of the surveillance society, saying what has happened in the United Kingdom is likely to happen in this country in the future.

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One of the most disturbing aspects of the decline in our privacy is the way it has sneaked up on us.

In the absence of a bill of rights, the Government has been able to slip through a raft of legislation which makes its job easier in many cases, but which also impinges on the rights of citizens.

While no one would disagree that it is important to minimise the incidence of welfare fraud, the implications of the swapping of confidential information between Government departments, one of the tools used in addressing welfare fraud, has impacts on all citizens.

There is now a myriad of clauses in legislation allowing data swapping and few people are aware of many of them.

Easy access to personal records such as birth certificates has made identity fraud much easier than it should be, although legislation is before Parliament to tighten the rules around this particular problem.

The private sector has also gleefully embraced the information revolution, with, as one newspaper put it recently, information databases (being) compiled, bought and sold by private companies, political parties and Government departments.

There have been battles recently over employers' rights to spy on workers in the workplace and barely a day goes by when there is not a story about some use or misuse of the internet at work.

Also many people willingly agree to have their activities monitored in exchange for the apparent benefits of loyalty and credit cards which allow the issuer to monitor and in many cases use the information for commercial purposes.

Cell phones and email provide another way to track people's activities and organisations in most cases have enough computing power these days to store, retrieve and search this information almost indefinitely.

The increasing use of databases and technology provides many benefits for our society. The problem lies in people not being aware of the privacy pitfalls attached to these benefits.

Surveys show increasing concerns about privacy. It is important that people follow up on these concerns and be aware of what information is gathered about them, what it is used for and what rights they have over the content and use of that information.

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