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Watchdog's Big Brother UK warning

BBC | August 16 2004

The UK could "sleepwalk into a surveillance society" as a result of ID cards and other plans, the information commissioner Richard Thomas has warned.
He is particularly concerned about how much information will be collected and widely shared under the ID card plans.

Mr Thomas is also concerned about plans for a population register and a database of every child.

He used General Franco's Spain as an example of what can happen when a state knows too much about its citizens.

Mr Thomas says, although he is not for or against an ID card scheme itself, he is concerned about the government's failure to spell out their exact purpose.

He told The Times newspaper: "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.

"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 benefits and services?"

A Home Office spokesman said: "The Government remains committed to its plans for a national identity card scheme which, among other things, will protect people in the fight against identity fraud and organised crime."

Mr Thomas said he did not want to sound "paranoid" but pointed to General Franco's Spain and Communist Eastern Europe as examples of what can happen when a government gets too powerful and has too much information on its citizens.


Mr Thomas, who is information commissioner for England and Wales, also raised concerns about to the Citizen's Information Project, planned by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which would create a population database for use by public services.

An ONS spokeswoman said a consultation on the plans was currently being held and that nothing was set in stone.

"The population register would simply act as an index to existing records held in different databases.

"These records could only be linked when specifically authorised by legislation," a consultation paper on the plans says.

Mr Thomas also expressed concerns about a database of all children from birth to adulthood proposed in the Children Bill.

'Function creep'

The proposal followed the inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie which criticised the failure to share information about the youngster.

Under the scheme, every child would have a unique number which would enable the different organisations that come into contact with children, such as social services, police and educational bodies to share information.

Mr Thomas told the Times: "There are reasons why we need to promote better information sharing where children are at risk, but whether the answer is to create a database of every child in the country should be questioned."

A Downing Street spokeswoman told reporters Mr Thomas was making an important contribution to the government's consultations over the ID cards plans.

She stressed there would be guarantees to prevent "function creep" so information was not handed around government in an uncontrolled way.