'Pervasive' surveillance in U.K. threatens democracy: Lords

Mass surveillance is undermining the public right to privacy in the United Kingdom, says a committee of the House of Lords.

Mass surveillance is undermining the public right to privacy in the United Kingdom, says a committee of the House of Lords.

"As privacy is an essential pre-requisite to the exercise of individual freedom, its erosion weakens the constitutional foundations on which democracy and good governance have traditionally been based in this country," said the report released Friday by the House of Lords Constitution Committee.

The report acknowledged that surveillance has been put in place to fight crime and the threat of terrorism as well as to improve administrative efficiency. However, it highlighted concerns about the country's four million closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras, its National DNA Database and other "pervasive and routine" surveillance and personal data collection by the government and private sector.

"Many of these surveillance practices are unknown to most people, and their potential consequences are not fully appreciated," the report said.

The database, for example, includes records for more than seven per cent of the population and is believed to be the largest in the world. The report said it may infringe on civil liberties and could be misused in the future.

Victims should get compensation: report

The committee recommended toughening rules governing surveillance and personal data collection and offering compensation to people who have been subject to "unlawful" surveillance.

In particular, it called for the government to:

  • Require an independent assessment before it begins any new type of data collection or processing scheme, to analyse its potential impact on privacy.
  • Install a judicial watchdog to oversee surveillance by public authorities.
  • Introduce laws to enforce codes of practice with respect to the use of security cameras.
  • Reassess the length of time DNA profiles are kept in its database.
  • Give the country's information commissioner the power to inspect the surveillance and data collection practices of private companies.

The report comes at a time when concerns are being raised about increasing surveillance and data collection in other countries as well, including Canada.

Last May, CBC learned that the RCMP plans to install hundreds of closed-circuit television cameras at approximately 100 sites for security during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. The Privacy Commissioner of Canada is to release a report next Thursday about the collection and management of identity information by federal departments.