Britain becoming a Big Brother society, says data watchdog

Author: By Sophie Goodchild

A new report from Richard Thomas, the information commissioner, will say that the public needs to be made more aware of the “creeping encroachment” on civil liberties created by email monitoring, CCTV and computer tracking of our buying habits.

It is understood that one of the concerns in Mr Thomas’s report is the use of special listening devices which can be placed in lamp posts, street furniture and offices. These are already widely used in the Netherlands to combat crime and anti-social behaviour.

More than 300 of the cameras with built-in microphones have been fitted in benefit offices and city centres. The equipment can pick up aggressive tones on the basis of decibel level, pitch and speed at which words are spoken.

Westminster council has already started piloting the listening devices, but experts say the use of these microphones raises questions about how surveillance can be used to intrude into the private lives of citizens.

He will also call for greater regulation of companies that supply surveillance technology which provides “convenience or safety for the more affluent majority”, but not for the vulnerable such as children, immigrants and the elderly.

His warning comes as MPs launch their first inquiry into the impact of surveillance in Britain. The Home Affairs Select Committee will investigate the use of video cameras to monitor high streets and residential areas as well as the holding of personal information on both government and commercial databases.

On Tuesday, Mr Thomas, who last year warned that Britain was “sleepwalking into a surveillance society”, will tell the committee at its first hearing that new safeguards must be introduced to protect the public from the increasing intrusion of surveillance into their daily lives.

Civil liberty campaigners have already warned that Britain is becoming a Big Brother society where its citizens are increasingly being watched. There are more than four million CCTV cameras in this country, one for every 14 people, and the national DNA database which was set up by police to combat crime now holds 3.5 million profiles.

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