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Beware rise of Big Brother state, warns data watchdog

By Richard Ford, Home Correspondent

BRITAIN’S information watchdog gives warning today that the country risks “sleepwalking into a surveillance society” because of government plans for identity cards and a population register.

Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, says that there is a growing danger of East German Stasi-style snooping if the State gathers too much information about individual citizens.

He singles out three projects that he believes are of particular concern. They are David Blunkett’s identity card scheme; a separate population register planned by the Office for National Statistics; and proposals for a database of every child from birth to the age of 18.

He says: “My anxiety is that we don’t sleepwalk into a surveillance society where much more information is collected about people, accessible to far more people shared across many more boundaries than British society would feel comfortable with.”

Asked if he thinks there is a risk of this occurring because of the Government’s plans, Mr Thomas tells The Times: “I think there is a danger, yes.” The office of the Information Commissioner is an independent body created by statute and answerable to Parliament.

Mr Thomas, 55, a solicitor, was appointed two years ago after a career in the private, public and voluntary sectors. His job is to promote greater public access to official records while ensuring that the State does not collect more information about citizens than is necessary.

Mr Thomas highlights his concerns by pointing to the former communist regimes in Eastern Europe and Franco’s Spain which both collected huge amounts of information about citizens. “I don’t want to start talking paranoia language, but data protection has a strong continental European flavour.

“Some of my counterparts in Eastern Europe, in Spain, have experienced in the last century what can happen when government gets too powerful and has too much information on citizens. When everyone knows everything about everybody else and the Government has got massive files, whether manual or computerised.”

The Government’s plans for an identity card include a national register which would include details such as a person’s address, as well as any previous addresses he has lived at and when. The register will also include the fingerprints of every citizen.

Police, the security services, the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise will have access to the register. The Home Secretary will also be able to give any Whitehall department access without the need for a new Act of Parliament.

Mr Thomas says that the implication of gathering so much information and allowing such wide access is much more serious than a debate about plastic cards. “I don’t think people have woken up to what lies behind this,” he says. “It enables the Government of the day to build up quite a comprehensive picture about many of your activities. My job is to make sure no more information is collected than necessary for any particular purpose.” Although he does not oppose the idea of identity cards, insisting that he cannot be “for or against”, he is critical of the Government’s failure to spell out in a draft Bill the cards’ exact purpose. He says: “The Government has changed its line over the last two or three years as to what the card is intended for. You have to have clarity. Is it for the fight against terrorism? Is it to promote immigration control? Is it to provide access to public benefit and services? Various other reasons have been put forward . . . I don’t think that is acceptable.”

Mr Thomas is also concerned about the long-term effects of other databases proposed by Whitehall. The Citizen’s Information Project, which is planned by the Office for National Statistics and is separate from the identity card register, would create a population database for use by public services. It would contain a person’s name, address, sex, date and place of birth, and a unique reference number. It would allow people to update their name and address across all government departments by making one entry rather than, as now, informing each agency individually.

The Children Bill proposes a database of all children from birth until adulthood. It was put forward after the failure of official agencies to share information in the Victoria Climbie child abuse case. School achievements, medical and social services records and parental marital status could be on the database. The health department is also planning a database detailing treatments and social care for all patients.

Mr Thomas says: “I am not a Luddite. There are reasons why we need to promote better information sharing where children are at risk, but whether the right answer is to create a database of every child in the country should be questioned.”

It is not the first time that warnings have been given about the rise of a Big Brother-style society in Britain. Statistics show that the country now has four million closed-circuit television cameras monitoring the population; there are details of 2.5 million convicted or suspected criminals on DNA databases; police have gathered 5.5 million fingerprints; and London Transport’s Oyster card sends out a signal about an individual’s whereabouts every time it is checked at a station.

Mark Oaten, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said he was concerned about the proliferation of databases: “While the Government can sometimes justify each measure individually, the danger is that we are slipping into a Big Brother society by stealth.”