Richard Thomas, the UK’s independent information commissioner, said on Thursday that clear lines had to be drawn about how much information on people, such as their everyday movements or spending habits, government agencies and businesses are allowed to possess.
“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,” Thomas said.
A survey of 37 countries released by Privacy International, a civil liberties group, ranked Britain alongside Russia, China, Malaysia and Singapore as countries practising “endemic” surveillance against the individual.
Britain has up to 4.2 million CCTV cameras, or about one for every 14 people and the average Briton is captured about 300 times a day on film.
The government is pushing ahead with controversial plans to introduce biometric identity cards while Tony Blair, the British prime minister, has said he wants an expansion of the police’s DNA database to cover even people released without charge.
Rights groups say governments around the world have used the so-called “war on terrorism” as a justification for increased snooping into the lives of citizens.
“Today I fear that we are in fact waking up to a surveillance society that is already all around us”
Richard Thomas, UK independent information commissioner
Thomas said that while some forms of surveillance could help combat crime and terrorism, others risked undermining trust and fostering a climate of suspicion.
He voiced concern about commercial, as well as government, intrusion.
“Every time we use a mobile phone, use our credit cards, go online to search on the Internet, go electronic shopping, drive our cars, more and more information is being collected,” he told the BBC. “Humans must dictate our future, not machines.”
A report that was compiled for a conference in London of international data protection and privacy commissioners hosted by Thomas predicted surveillance would be ramped up even more in the next 10 years.
Among its forecasts are satellite navigation devices in cars that would help police to monitor speed and track selected vehicles.
Further predictions were screening employees for future health problems and their impact on productivity and that monitoring of people’s movements would intensify, with the use of unmanned aircraft and street-level security cameras with facial recognition technology.
The Privacy International survey, conducted jointly with the US-based Electronic Privacy Information Centre, was conducted using 13 criteria ranging from constitutional protections to visual surveillance and phone-tapping.
Germany and Canada scored the best marks for civil liberties safeguards.