Committee calls for database prudence

yourdata.jpgKable’s Government Computing | The government should vow to collect only essential data on people and hold it only for as long as is necessary, the Home Affairs Select Committee has recommended. The committee says that decisions to create new databases, to start sharing data or to increase surveillance of people should only take place when there is a proven need, in a report issued on 8 June 2008.

“In general the government should move to curb the drive to collect more personal information and establish larger databases,” the report says. It adds that, as a preliminary risk assessment, privacy impact assessments should be undertaken before the design of a project begins and should then be independently audited.

The report also says the information commissioner should write an annual report for Parliament on surveillance, that government should make a formal response and that Parliament should hold an annual debate on the subject.

The report, A Surveillance Society?, makes specific recommendations for the Home Office. On the National Identity Register, the committee say the department should explicitly declare it will not routinely use the scheme’s administrative data, sometimes known as the data trail or the audit trail, to monitor people.

It should also make and publish contingency plans to be used in the event of the register’s biometric information being breached, and also for how access to its systems will be controlled.

Among the recommendations is that the Home Office should “take every opportunity to raise awareness of how and why the surveillance techniques provided for by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act might be used” as well as review the statutory oversight of the act. It should also publicise, with the information commissioner, how the data people give to the private sector — such as in retail purchases, use of blogs and on social networking sites — may be used to investigate crime.

On camera surveillance, the report says the Home Office should justify any extension of its use “by evidence of its effectiveness for its intended purpose”, and that it should undertake further research to evaluate the effectiveness of such schemes before allocating more funds to cameras.

In general, it says that the Home Office should, with every proposed extension of power over personal information, explicitly address the effect on the individual and society, and say where the balance will lie between protecting the public and preserving individual liberty.

The report includes examples of how surveillance based decision making can damage individuals. They include the case of someone barred from working with children because they were arrested after an unfounded complaint of committing sex offences.

In particular, the report insists that the Home Office “must not undertake or sponsor work” in using health records, or data held on children, for predictive profiling.

“We reject crude characterisations of our society as a surveillance society,” the report says in its conclusions. “Yet the potential for surveillance of citizens in public spaces and private communications has increased to the extent that ours could be described as a surveillance society unless trust in the government’s intentions in relation to data and data sharing is preserved.”